Can True Crime TV Help With America's Cold Case Problem?

Post by: Rick Ellis 22 February, 2021

There are a few familiar sub-genres staples of true crime television. The well-known stories that always bring in a viewing audience, such as Jon Benet Ramsey or the Zodiac Killer. Then there are the cases that feature less-familiar criminals, but ones involving a case so complex it merits a two or three-episode telling (The Chameleon Killer or The Widower). The biggest group are the one-hour recreations of some crime - typically a murder - which can be told and wrapped up in an hour-long episode.

One area that hasn't received much coverage are murder cold cases. Which is unfortunate, since this is a topic which seems like a perfect fit for the true crime television audience. I don't mean a "let's find this fugitive" series like America's Most Wanted. I'm specifically talking about cases that are legitimately unsolved and unlikely to be solved unless some outside force intervenes.

How massive is the cold case problem is America? This piece in the Texas Observer paints a pretty grim picture of the issue:

And all those previously undetected homicides had become part of a larger national problem: a backlog of more than 250,000 unsolved murder cases, a number that increases by about 6,000, nationwide each year. 

This enormous backlog represents what the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) called a “cold case crisis” in a June report. As more and more homicide cases go unsolved, the backlog grows, allowing an estimated 2,000 serial killers nationwide to remain free to kill again. Too few police departments are effectively deploying their resources to stop them.

And then there are the murders that are never solved because the homicide detectives for whatever reason don't expend much effort on the investigation:

Her son, Scott MacPhee, came to his mother’s house to meet Plano police officers that day. He was mystified by what he observed: “It was cold that day, but her coat had disappeared. And two valuable rings she always wore were missing.” He challenged a Plano detective about the missing items, but the response was, according to him, “Old people hide their stuff.” There was blood in the bathroom, in the garage, near her body, and even on her glasses. And yet his mother had no obvious wounds. Officers collected no samples of the blood. Nor did they take photos or videos, he said. No autopsy was ordered by Collin County officials. 

The death investigation seemed like a whirlwind, Scott said: “We found her, the cops show up, the paramedics show up, the CSI department shows up, and they rope things off, they do all their investigation, and the detective says she died of natural causes."

A few years back, TNT briefly had a murder cold case series, but it was built around a team of investigators that tried to solve a specific case. Aside from the fact that it was cumbersome TV format, it was also an expensive approach that only allowed the show to focus on a handful of cases throughout the season.

What I would like to see is a straight-forward murder cold case series. Each episode focuses on one or two cold cases. A basic outline of the facts, some interviews with police, family and friends. And then a highlighting of the type of information that would might lead to a break in the long-cold murder case.

Even better, since the online amateur crime sleuth community is already so active, channel that community and bring them into the show. Give people an opportunity to suggest cases. Build a platform that allows people to interact with the show and each other as they uncover facts. Use the reach of television to engage an already engaged audience and build a new sub-genre of true crime television from scratch.

Have a thought about this piece? Contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow me on Twitter at @aysrick

Last modified on Monday, 22 February 2021 12:14