What factors influence whether homicide cases are solved? Insights from qualitative research with detectives in Great Britain and the United States.

Brookman, F., Maguire, E.R., & Maguire, M. (2018)
Homicide Studies, 1 – 30
Type of Profession:

This article explores the views of homicide detectives in Great Britain and the U.S. regarding factors that affect the chances of solving homicides.


A growing body of research examines factors that influence the likelihood of solving homicide cases. The importance of understanding how and why homicides are solved is highlighted by the fact that, despite major advances in forensic science, homicide clearance rates have declined significantly in the U.S. (and to a much lesser extent in the United Kingdom) since the 1960s.  A growing body of research is now examining factors that influence homicide case outcomes. Much of this research emanates from the U.S. and is based on analysis of police data. This article goes beyond crime data to explore the views of homicide detectives, complemented by observations of investigations, in both Great Britain and the U.S.

Homicide cases are measured in terms of “clearances.” Notably, clearing a crime does not require a conviction in court. An offense can be cleared in two ways: it can be “cleared by arrest” when at least one person has been arrested, charged, and turned over for prosecution (Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], 2014); or “cleared by exception” when police have identified the offender but factors beyond their control (such as the death of a clearly identified offender, or the refusal of extradition) prevent them from bringing charges. Other research on homicide clearance has focused on incident characteristics, victim-offender relationships, and other factors. For example, research suggests that victim–offender relationship is one of the strongest predictors of homicide clearances, highlighting that the more distant the social relationship between victim and offender, the less likely the case will be solved. Hence, “domestic” homicides typically have the highest clearance rates (Lee, 2005; Marche, 1994; Roberts, 2007; Roberts & Lyons, 2011).

This study wasunique in that it isbased on the views of detectives.  Detectives in both countries tended to focus on the “information profile” of the case. Difficult-to-solve cases were described as lacking physical evidence (such as DNA evidence, video evidence, fingerprint, ballistic or other trace evidence) and/or witness evidence. In contrast, cases where such evidence existed (or could be readily found) were viewed as likely to be solved and solved relatively quickly. It was also recognized that a lack of evidence can result from a reluctance on the part of witnesses to come forward. That can result from mistrust of law enforcement, and the difficulty that witnesses can be intimidated or even killed to silence them. Witness intimidation appeared to pose a greater problem in the U.S. than in Britain, partly because detectives relied more on witness evidence, but primarily because of the more widespread violent gang culture in the U.S.  Characteristics of investigators were also identified as likely to make a difference to outcomes, particularly a robust work ethic, resilience, and attention to detail. Relevant experience, knowledge, and skills were also highlighted as important facets of an effective investigator. Another aspect of detective work that was widely identified by American respondents as important to the success of investigations was interviewing skills, with a particular emphasis on the craft of interviewing suspects to secure confessions. Interestingly, interviewees in both countries felt that advances in technology were leading to an “over-reliance on science” at the expense of traditional investigative practice, leading to some deskilling of detectives.

This study offers new insights into the nexus between detectives’ perceptions of particular kinds of homicides, offenders, victims, witnesses, and communities; their expectations about the solvability of cases and, in turn, the commitment of energy and resources that they and their departments invest into certain kinds of cases. 

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