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More people are getting away with murder. Unsolved killings reach a record high


A record number of murders across America are going unsolved. The rate at which murders nationwide were solved or cleared has dropped to around 50%. That's a record low. And several cities have seen the number of murder cases resulting in at least one arrest dip into the low 30% range. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Through 10 years of hard work, Artgel "Jun" Anabo Jr. and his cousin Mark Legaspi turned their uncle's old deli in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood into a thriving and much loved Filipino fast food restaurant called Lucky Three Seven. Last May 18, around 9:45 p.m., as Jun Anabo Jr. was leaving the restaurant after another long day, someone came up behind him, pulled out a handgun and shot him. He died at the hospital shortly after. Jun's 11-year-old son, Cousin Legaspi says with a heavy sigh, was right next to his dad when the gunman attacked.

MARK LEGASPI: He saw everything. I'm just glad he ran the other way instead of following his dad. So, you know, because he could have got caught in the line of fire.

WESTERVELT: Worsening the pain for the entire family is the fact that almost a year later, the killer is still out there. Oakland detectives released security cam footage and the license plate number of the suspected getaway car. And the family says they have a potential lead - a man who sold Jun a truck that turned out to be stolen - but so far, no arrests in his cousin's death. In fact, Legaspi says the family feels ghosted by Oakland's homicide detectives.

LEGASPI: I haven't had any word. I mean, I did make a - try to make a couple calls. I didn't get no answers. I mean, it's almost a year. I would like to know something, you know, if there's anything, you know, even if they didn't do anything, that would be nice to know, instead of us hoping.

WESTERVELT: Legaspi's frustration is shared by hundreds of families of murder victims in Oakland and across the country whose cases remain unsolved.

DRENNON LINDSEY: Well, I certainly don't believe in anyone getting away with murder. You know, these cases are never closed. We never give up. You know, and I also think that we can only get better.

WESTERVELT: Drennon Lindsey is a deputy chief of police in Oakland. Last year, the city's homicide clearance rate was just 36%. If you take out the handful of older cold cases that were solved during 2022, the clearance rate here was just 27%. Drennon says too many cases per officer for her 16 detectives and an antiquated case management data system are key reasons behind the painfully low clearance rate. But the biggest one, Lindsey says, is too many people are scared to talk with and help the OPD.

LINDSEY: People don't want to cooperate. People don't want to come to court and testify. And they are afraid of retaliation. They're afraid of being labeled in their communities as a snitch. And we're often left trying to plea and beg for the community to come forward with information to hold this person accountable for committing murder.

WESTERVELT: But that mistrust is also bred by the department's chronic dysfunction. The department remains under federal oversight and has for two decades. And recently, veteran Oakland homicide detective Phong Tran was arrested and arraigned after the local DA accused him of paying a witness thousands of dollars to lie in a murder case that resulted in two men getting life sentences. Detective Tran faces felony charges of perjury and bribery. Those two murder convictions have been tossed out. His attorney calls the charges baseless and lashed out at the DA for treating, quote, "murderers like heroes." But the Alameda County DA's office says it is now reviewing at least 125 Oakland murders Detective Tran investigated.

Oakland is hardly alone in not solving murders. Nationally, in 2020, the rate at which murders were cleared, which can include solving very old murder cases, hit a historic low. Philip Cook at Duke University studies and writes on the topic.

PHILIP COOK: We saw a sharp drop in the national clearance rate in 2020. It reached close to 50% at that time nationwide, which was the lowest ever recorded by the FBI. And it hasn't come up that much since then.

WESTERVELT: The FBI defines a murder cleared if a suspect has been identified and arrested. But a murder can also be declared cleared through what's known as an exceptional means - for example, if a suspect is dead, can't be extradited or prosecutors refuse to press charges. So even some cities now boasting of improved murder clearance rates are really just playing with the numbers through that exceptional means clause. Cook's research, for example, shows that in Chicago, from 2016 to 2020, the percentage of murders with any type of weapon resulting in at least one arrest was just 33%. Cook believes the homicide clearance crisis is being driven by a kind of doom loop of mutual mistrust, with low clearance rates undermining future investigations and potentially driving up the murder rate in some minority communities where lack of arrests undermines deterrence.

LINDSEY: Communities that are especially impacted by gun violence believe that the police are ineffective or indifferent, and as a result, they're less willing to cooperate and provide information the police need to have successful investigations. It is undermining whatever trust there is in the police, and it's a vicious circle.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, back at Oakland's Lucky Three Seven Filipino restaurant, Mark Legaspi says he doesn't blame Oakland detectives per se - they're overworked and overwhelmed, he says - but he wants answers, and so does his murdered cousin's son, now 12, who was, of course, deeply shaken by watching his dad get shot and killed.

LEGASPI: He's doing good. He's in honor roll. Just got to keep that love with him every day, you know?

WESTERVELT: The family plans to honor Jun with a gathering at the restaurant on the upcoming anniversary of his murder, but they'd rather celebrate a break in his case.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.