When considering why most people don’t murder other human beings, one would hope it has something to do with our unshakable moral convictions. Yet, when Dr. David Buss of the University of Texas conducted an unprecedented set of surveys in 2005, he found that the most cited reason your average American doesn’t follow through with their murderous fantasies (91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had “at least one vivid fantasy”) is the fear of getting caught, and of a life behind bars. With the popularity of shows like CSI and NCIS, where, in each episode, investigators use a combination of technology and forensic evidence to catch a killer (and they always catch the killer), there is a cultural assumption that getting away with murder is virtually impossible.
But according to a sweeping report by NPR released Monday, only two out of every three murders result in an arrest. Specifically, the “clearance rate”—that is, cases that end with an arrest or the identification of a culprit—is 64.1 percent. An even smaller percentage of those result in a conviction. That’s down from a 90 percent clearance rate 50 years ago. Phrased differently: Today, there’s a one in three chance that you can get away with murder.
To the law-abiding citizen, this might seem instinctively counterintuitive. Omnipresent surveillance, witnesses, and DNA evidence surely spell jail time for anyone who commits murder, we figure. So how exactly do 36 percent of murderers get away with it? Is there something they’re doing differently, or are they simply the beneficiaries of police negligence?
Today, there’s a one in three chance that you can get away with murder.
In 2012, Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole wrote a short article for Psychology Today in which she detailed the ways she has seen criminals—especially psychopaths—get away with these crimes. O'Toole spent most of her career as one of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit’s senior profilers, and is now an author and program director at George Mason University’s Forensic Science Department.
The first, and perhaps most obvious way murderers evade arrest: they blend in. Most murderers are not machete wielding, hockey mask sporting psychopaths; they look like normal human beings. They could have a family, dog, or a house. Most dangerous people, O’Toole said, do not look any different from non-dangerous people.
This ability to blend in could partially be the result of what's called impression management, or image control, which O’Toole says is another way criminals have evaded arrest in the past. Psychopathy is partly defined by the lack of a social conscience or a diminished empathy. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine, then, a murderer whose outward behavior indicates that nothing is out of the ordinary, as the weight of their actions does not resonate at an emotional level.
Even if there is DNA to be collected, it’s hard to convict someone without witness accounts, and increasingly strained relationships between the public and the police is making those harder to come by.
Certainly, though, the police aren’t only basing their investigation off of a suspect’s behavior. What about the evidence? There is a common assumption that crime scenes are littered with DNA evidence—blood, fingerprints, hair, semen, anything. What many don’t consider, though, is that DNA evidence is extremely fragile, and crimes don’t take place in a vacuum. “It can be destroyed by the weather, the environment, the perpetrator and even wild animals,” O'Toole wrote. Plus, handguns—which don't leave much DNA evidence behind, compared to, say, a knife—make up 73 percent of the weapons used in homicides, according to the FBI.
Even if there is DNA to be collected, it’s hard to convict someone without witness accounts, and increasingly strained relationships between the public and the police is making those harder to come by. The growing “no snitch” culture—which police say is largely present in minority communities, NPR notes—has made the public more apprehensive about speaking with the police, and thus identifying suspects. There are also cases, O’Toole wrote, where witnesses don’t realize what they know is valuable. Researchers have dubbed this the CSI Effect, which explains the warped public perception that most murders are solved through DNA evidence, when really it’s the messy details revealed in witness interviews.
Statistically speaking, if you murder someone, chances are you're going to get caught. But the fact that one-third of murderers don't is reason enough to make you question everything you thought you knew about CSI.