Last month I sat in the back of a courtroom in San Fernando Superior
Court and watched an admitted murderer named Edmond Jay Marr be
sentenced to prison.
His punishment was more than 20 years in coming, and brought to an
end the first case carried by the Los Angeles Police Department's
cold-case unit from investigation to conviction to sentencing.
Faced with DNA evidence, as well as compelling phone tap recordings
and other evidence, Marr cut a deal with the prosecution and pleaded
guilty to second-degree murder. He got 16 years in prison for killing
Elaine Graham in 1983.
Graham was an attractive 29-year-old nurse, the mother of an infant
daughter. She was abducted on March 17, 1983, sometime after dropping
off her baby at a caretaker's home and heading to a writing class on
the nearby Cal State Northridge campus.
About a year later, human bones and clothing found in the hills above
Chatsworth were identified as hers.
A deep groove cut into one of the rib bones indicated that she had
been stabbed to death. Her blouse was found nearby in the brush.
There were no perforations in the fabric, which means that she
probably was naked when she was killed.
Her family had to live with this scant but horrible knowledge seeping
into their own bones for two decades. It was all that remained when
the highly publicized case resulted in no arrest.
Marr had been a suspect at the time and a knife was even confiscated
from him, but neither he nor the knife could be directly linked to
Elaine Graham was a nurse but she also wanted to be a writer. She
took classes part time, and to help learn the craft she kept a
journal in which she wrote something each night to her baby daughter.
One night she wrote about a dream she'd had. In the dream she and her
daughter were detectives and they were on an investigation. Together
they caught a bad man and solved a big case.
The following day Graham disappeared.
When the cold-case unit was formed by the Los Angeles Police
Department three years ago, one of the first cases that Dets. Rick
Jackson and Tim Marcia took a look at was Graham's death.
They had heard of it from one of the long-retired detectives who had
originally worked the case. He told them the case still haunted him.
He urged them to check it out, saying there might be a knife still in
evidence. There might even be DNA.
Jackson and Marcia pulled the dusty murder book out of the archives
and took a look. They reopened the investigation. Soon they too were
haunted by the pretty young woman whose life was taken so early.
Jackson even put Graham's photo on his desk, much as many men put
pictures of wives and children on theirs.
Then the two cold-case detectives got lucky. They found that Marr's
knife was still stored as evidence. Forensic technicians removed the
wooden handle and discovered a minute amount of dried blood that had
seeped beneath the wood and escaped all efforts to clean the knife.
It was enough for a DNA comparison. The problem was that Graham had
been dead for 20 years. They had no DNA from her. Such technology
wasn't even on law enforcement's radar in 1983.
So the detectives went to her daughter, now grown and a near image of
her mother. From the daughter's DNA they were able to extrapolate
Graham's DNA. And it matched the blood they had found on Marr's
The detectives now had the murder weapon and soon they had the killer
as well. Faced with the evidence, Marr chose to plead guilty.
It had taken more than two decades but Elaine Graham's dream had
finally come true. She and her daughter had caught a bad man and
solved a big case.
A few days after I watched Marr's sentencing in San Fernando, I was
interviewed by a journalist in regard to a novel I'd written about
the LAPD's cold-case unit.
(In my book, I call the squad the "Open-Unsolved Unit," renaming it
because the fictional chief of police declares that there will be no
such thing as a cold case in Los Angeles.)
The interviewer asked me about the real unit, which works out of Room
503 in Parker Center. There are six detectives and a supervisor
assigned to the unit, and 8,000 unsolved homicides in Los Angeles
dating to 1960.
The interviewer suggested that the squad amounts to little more than
a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.
On average, there are more than 1,000 unsolved homicides for each
detective on the squad — and that includes the supervisor. Even if
each one solved a homicide a month — which is highly unlikely given
the painstaking protocol applied to gathering evidence — it would
take a century to catch up.
The interviewer's point was to suggest that perhaps those seven warm
bodies working out of Room 503 might be better put to use on the
street stopping crimes before they occurred instead of investigating
old cases that had long been closed and were gathering dust.
It's a classic policing dilemma: Is it better to allocate resources
toward stopping crimes or to have the resources firmly in place and ready to solve crimes after they occur? It's a question for police
department deployment specialists to ponder. But I would suggest that while doing so, a visit to a courtroom to watch one of these cases
come to an end would be in order. The visitor would learn that a city that forgets its victims is a city that is lost.
The courtroom where Marr was sentenced in April was filled with
people who still remembered her and cared, including one of the
original detectives who worked the case in 1983 and many of Graham's
childhood friends and family members.
Cold-case detectives tell me that there is no such thing as closure, that a violent death leaves a hole in loved ones and even communities that can never be completely filled. They see those holes every time they reopen an old case.
They say there may not be closure, but there always are answers that can be found and sometimes there is even justice.
Sometimes that has to be enough. Cases may grow old and gather dust but they never go cold — not for some people.
About The Author:
Michael Connelly is the author of 15 mysteries, most of them featuring LAPD Det. Harry Bosch. They include "Angels Flight," "The Concrete Blonde" and "The Narrows." His most recent book is "The Closer.