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If you have an interest in old homicide cases from the recent or distant past, there are a few steps you can take to conduct research. We’ll explore how to find information about well-known and lesser-known old homicides, access it, and understand it.
While it is going to be easiest to do the research in the location where the crime happened, with how widely documented many homicides are today, you have plenty of resources to aid your research regardless. murder no matter where it occurred worldwide.
What Is a Homicide?
A homicide occurs when a person kills another person. There are three types of intentional homicide (first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree murder) and two types of manslaughter (voluntary and involuntary).
Homicide is a term that encompasses both legal and illegal killings. Legal homicide, or justifiable homicide, occurs when someone commits a killing that an affirmative defense justifies. This includes self-defense, insanity, and more.
What Are the Types of Homicide?
When you’re trying to find out information about old homicides, you may come across different types that complicate the process. You might read about five commonly recognized types of homicide in your research. Their simple definitions are:
- First-degree murder: An intentional, planned killing with the most severe punishment.
- Second-degree murder: A killing that occurs during the commission of a felony.
- Third-degree murder: All other kinds of murder not defined by first and second-degree.
- Voluntary manslaughter: Killing without justification and due to provocation by the deceased.
- Involuntary manslaughter: Results from gross negligence or recklessness.
Knowing and understanding these terms will guide your research. For example, you may only know that you need information about first-degree murders in a particular city or a voluntary manslaughter case in a small town. Understanding these terms will make your research go a lot faster.
Can Civilians Investigate Homicides?
One of the reasons you might be interested in learning more about a particular homicide is a general interest. If you have a desire to put together the pieces, perhaps solving what the police could not, you may be wondering whether or not it's legal for a civilian to investigate a homicide or a cold case.
Authorities around the country encourage citizens to do what they can to help solve cold cases without breaking any laws. However, while you can do your own research, you cannot make an arrest, impersonate a police officer, breach privacy laws, or trespass. Make sure to consult your state’s local laws regarding civilian investigations.
How To Find Old Homicide Cases
There are any number of reasons you might be interested in reading about old homicide cases. Perhaps you’re doing scholarly research, are interested in the history of a specific person or place, or you might have stumbled upon a surprising incident in your family’s history and want to know more.
No matter why you’re interested, there are several ways to find out information about old homicide cases, many of which can be performed from your computer.
If it happened in the last three decades, it’s likely to have been documented by multiple sources. However, if the homicide occurred beyond this timeframe, you might run into more trouble with fewer records and less attention to detail. Below are a few tips to help you successful research information about old homicides:
Do a General Online Search
The easiest place to start is by searching the deceased person’s name, date of birth, location of death, and any other distinguishing factors you know. You have several search engines at your disposal, but it’s easiest to start with Google.
The more information you already know about the case, the easier it will be to narrow your search results. If you only have the person’s name and location, it’s still likely enough to produce relevant websites. However, if you’re looking for information about a popular case, you will get many different results, some of which are less trustworthy than others.
Search Genealogy Websites
Genealogy websites are a surprisingly valuable resource for finding old homicide cases. Websites like Familysearch.org and Ancestry.com allow you to search US death records. Most states began keeping records sometime between 1900 and 1930.
Death records include the deceased’s name, date of death and place of death, cause of death, age when they died, and their place of birth. Such information will be critical as you broaden your research into a particular homicide.
Another website of interest is Deathindexes.com which operates in much of the same way, allowing users to pick a state and get records from Ancestory.com, obituaries, cemeteries, and more.
The National Center for Health Statistics also operates a site called the National Death Index, which many professionals in the medical community use. Nevertheless, the public can also utilize it, letting you take advantage of vital mortality data.
Check Online Newspaper Archives
In the past few decades, more and more newspapers have been digitizing their records. Indeed, thousands of papers and blogs are now available and easily searchable.
Resources like Google Historical Newspapers and Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers are great places to start. With these databases, you’ll access scanned versions of newspapers dating back decades. This is particularly helpful if you want to delve into events as they happened, as many homicides were covered on a day-to-day basis by reporters. These articles may contain reactions to the crime, such as family, friends, and law enforcement.
Make sure that no matter which resource you consult, you confirm that the information is trustworthy and accurate. After all, the news could only cover the information they had available at the time.
In that context, they might not have been privy to crucial details. So, it’s best to compare everything to different sources documented and double-check facts. In particular, try to find articles written much later on, and use newspaper articles as only one element of your research.
Search Public Records
Searching through public records can be difficult, but it may be the only way that you can find out information about some homicides. Through the Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA, you’re legally allowed to request access to public records from government agencies. This includes but is not limited to court records (which may be crucial to your research) and financial records.
The National Archives is another excellent option to begin your search. It’s a repository of the United States’ records for which you’ll need an appointment.
Contact the State’s Attorney General’s Office
A state attorney general’s office may be able to point you in the right direction. If not, they could help explain the state’s governing law when it comes to public records and how you could go about obtaining them. Every state has a law based on the Freedom of Information Act that outlines this information.
Check State Law Enforcement Websites
Besides newspaper articles, blogs, and journal articles, several different types of state-run websites routinely catalog unsolved homicides. For instance, FDLE lists information about unsolved murders in Florida. Many other resources are focused on individual counties, such as the Vancouver, Washington unsolved homicides website.
Contact the Local Law Enforcement Department
If you’re having trouble sifting through the online information or just making sense of what you’re reading, you may need to call the law enforcement department associated with the case. While you may not be able to get fresh insight from whoever you speak to, an officer might point you in the right direction or confirm that no additional information is available.
Contact the District Attorney’s Office
Another option is to contact the district attorney’s office for the area you’re interested in. As with the previous avenue, this requires knowing where the murder occurred (information you may not have access to). The district attorney’s office could supply you with the details you need to look in the right place.
If you’ve run out of options, you could turn to locals in the area of the homicide you’re researching. This avenue works better if you can travel to the locale you’re interested in, but it’s still possible to call historians or businesses with the hope of finding out more. It may be a longer process than you’d hoped.
Still, you may find someone who can give you an address, last name, date of birth, age, or even personal details that could deliver a fresh perspective on the homicide you’ve been investigating. With this approach, you could be one step closer to finding all the information you’re looking for and gain a personal insight that you might otherwise have not had.
So, how to find old homicide cases? If you’re interested in learning more about a particular homicide, whether it is a first-degree crime that made national news or a relatively unknown involuntary manslaughter case, the internet has a wide variety of resources for you to consult. These include Google Historical Newspapers, the National Archives, genealogic sites, and public records.
If these avenues fail, personally reaching out to local historians, law enforcement, or the district attorney’s office to help you in your search.
Reference Legal Explanations
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" How To Find Old Homicide Cases". Legal Explanations. Accessed on November 30, 2023. https://legal-explanations.com/blog/how-to-find-old-homicide-cases/.
" How To Find Old Homicide Cases". Legal Explanations, https://legal-explanations.com/blog/how-to-find-old-homicide-cases/. Accessed 30 November, 2023
How To Find Old Homicide Cases. Legal Explanations. Retrieved from https://legal-explanations.com/blog/how-to-find-old-homicide-cases/.