Cold Case Murders in Toronto and the Role of the Public

I’ve stopped counting the number of people that have asked me whether I tuned into the “Serial” podcast about the murder of Baltimore teen Hae Min Lee and possible wrongful conviction of her boyfriend Adnan Syed.

The popularity of this online version of a 48 hours special spread like wildfire. Fans of the show seemed to wait with baited breath while discussing what new elements of the case the next episode would uncover. The podcast captured the attention of not only armchair investigator wannabes, but also a State prosecutor, defence attorneys and other justice actors in the State of Maryland.

It is widely accepted that the steadily growing popularity of the podcast led to the subsequent reopening of Mr. Syed’s case. The public added millions of new eyes and ears to dissecting the facts in the case and public feedback helped build support for Syed’s claims. Today, his file snakes through the post-conviction appeals process buttressed by new evidence pointing to his innocence.

To rival the attention received by “Serial,” the Netflix mini-series “Making of a Murderer” has also led to new revelations in a murder case as a result of viewers conducting independent analyses.

Public Involvement

Recently, the Toronto Police Service took an important step in involving the public in a similar investigatory role. The Toronto homicide unit launched a new database website that provides details on all cold case files in the city dating back to 1959. Members of the public can log on and review the details of every murder that is yet to be solved by the police force. The site allows users to sort by year or to conduct searches by victim name.

With the popularity of shows like “Serial” and “Making of a Murderer,” it would seem intuitive that making serious criminal investigations more accessible to the public only serves to benefit police response to crime in the long run. Of course, the cold case database is quite different from the extensive coordination involved in creating an online podcast or television show. However, this new venture by the Toronto Police Service is a starting point for the public to participate in the solving of crime and the bringing of perpetrators to justice.

Reopening Old Wounds

A cursory review of the database is a stark reminder of the tragic incidents this city has experienced. The reminder becomes that much more poignant when you consider the thousands of extended family members connected to these cold cases that have yet to gain closure.

For instance, the double homicide shooting of best friends Dylan Ellis, 26, and Oliver Martin, 25 while sitting in a Range Rover baffle police to this day. Both young men were promising professionals. Dylan was a photographer and Oliver had just passed his Certified Professional Accounting exam. There is no evidence that either had enemies or were connected in any way to criminal activity.

Another case that still haunts many Torontonians for the horrifying callousness of the killers was the murder of Amon Beckles. At the young age of 18, Beckles was gunned down while attending the funeral of his best friend Jamal Hemmings who was himself murdered only eight days prior. Police reports indicate that Beckles stepped outside of the church during the ceremony where he was ambushed and sprayed with bullets just outside the church doors. There were over 300 people in attendance at the funeral but his killers remain on the loose.

Cold Case Analysis

This cold case database would appear ripe for analysis when it comes to understanding the variables connected to unsolved murders. The type of neighbourhood, victim profile and various other contextual factors offer interesting avenues for discussion on crime in the city.

Moreover, through this database, we are exposed to the harsh realities of policing and the overwhelming pressure that is placed on the police force to identify those responsible for these crimes. With the approximately 500 unsolved murders in Toronto over nearly 60 years, it is likely that the majority of those killers are still walking the streets.

The cold case database presents an opportunity for the public to tap into our collective ability to assist in bringing justice to not just the victims but their families as well. There is an obvious public safety incentive that should motivate many people to at least take a look at the database and see if any of these incidents jog their memory.

Furthermore, the cold cases in Toronto are a treasure trove of material for ambitious Canadian filmmakers or social media gurus to draw attention to unsolved mysteries. Rather than keeping difficult cases hidden in a file room, the success of a few Internet series described above prove that public engagement is a constructive tool in the arsenal of modern policing.

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