A special report by the Washington Post combed through a review of about homicides in the district between 2000 and 2011, finding that ultimately less than one-third resulted in a conviction for either a manslaughter or murder charge.
Our D.C. criminal defense lawyers understand this is despite the fact that the number of overall killings has declined significantly in the last several decades.
The number of murders in D.C. peaked in 1991, totaling more than 480 at the time. Last year, they were at their lowest rate ever, around 110.
The Post spent 15 months conducting the longitudinal study to determine outcomes of D.C. murder cases as they moved through the court system.
Over the last decade, the rate of conviction was about 30 percent. That's slightly higher than results of similar research conducted in 1993, which found that 25 percent of some 1,3000 homicides between 1998 and 1990 resulted in conviction.
That increase doesn't appear to account for the strides made in science and technology that were supposed to be so key to helping law enforcement solve crimes. What's more, law enforcement apparently has significantly smaller case loads, which one would think would lead to more conviction as well.
Law enforcement and prosecutors say it's not a measurement of their own efforts (of course, they do), but rather the lack of witness cooperation. This shows that for all the exponential strides that have been made in forensics, plain old witness testimony tends to be the most valuable element in these cases.
While a defense attorney may only have so much room to dispute the science of DNA or other forensics, there is often ample opportunity to challenge witness testimony and credibility. This is why it's all the more important to choose a lawyer who is thorough, aggressive and eloquent in the courtroom.
Last year, there were reportedly 70 people in D.C. who were convicted of either manslaughter or murder. Another 21 were acquitted or the charges were dismissed after indictment. Another two individuals ended up leading guilty to lesser charges.
Prosecutors say this shows a marked improvement in prosecution rates. We would counter that the fact that they got it wrong a quarter of the time is a huge margin of error when you're talking about people who are facing decades or the rest of their lives behind bars.
Prosecutors say often cases today involve more than one suspect, and that has made it even tougher as witnesses tend to be more reluctant to come forward. Additionally, there has been a shift in the type of homicide being committed. Prosecutors say domestic situations used to be the primary source. Now, drugs, they say, are the most common motive. Drug dealers often have more than one enemy, making pinpointing a suspect more difficult.
Of those 2,300 homicides tracked by the Post, only about 150 were related to a domestic situation. Another 400 were classified as drug cases and another 330 as retaliation, typically involving gangs or drugs. Of those domestic violence cases, about 60 percent resulted in a conviction, versus about 22 percent of drug cases that ended in the same outcome.
However, we're also seeing fewer dismissals before trial. This makes some sense because a higher case load would result in a higher rate of error. That's why two decades ago, when the murder rate was higher, nearly 35 percent of cases ended in dismissals, while in the last 10 years, only about 13 percent of ended the same way.
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