Many times murder is much like a tornado. Murder swoops down and destroys one house while leaving the one next to it unscathed. The path of destruction in the aftermath is almost too much to bear. The victim can be black or white; male or female; gay or straight; rich or poor. Murder happens in an instant to anybody, anywhere seemingly showing no prejudice; no discrimination. Unfortunately, in some cases the murderer goes free, able to hide in the shadows and avoid the light while the case goes cold. The murder victim's survivors curse, cry, pray, and want revenge. However, in a moment of clarity they realize they want something more for their friend or relative: they want justice.
Kelly Siegler is a former prosecutor for Harris County, Texas and has worked cold case files for the last ten years at the District Attorney's office. Her record speaks for itself. Ms. Siegler has tried 68 murder cases and has never lost. She secured the death penalty on 19 of 20 capital murder cases and she has consistently ranked in the top 50 litigators in the nation. Because of her work she developed and took the idea of visiting small towns to assist local agencies with cold cases to Dick Wolf. Dick Wolf – who is the mastermind behind the Law & Order series – was on board with the idea and Cold Justice was formed. I was able to interview Ms. Siegler and get her thoughts on various aspects of the show.
In doing my research, I learned that Ms. Siegler kept a “waiting on God” drawer during her time at the district attorney's office. These were files where she was waiting for a small break; for a relationship to end and a potential witness became willing to talk. I asked Ms. Siegler if she was able to pull out any of these files and work more on them as a result of the show. “I remember all of those files that I had to leave behind and unfortunately have not had the chance to do anything with those left behind at Harris County while working on this show.”
A great deal of work and preparation goes into deciding to take a cold case. Local law enforcement has to invite the team into the local jurisdiction. The team also has to get the local district attorney on board with having a cold case re-opened. “Being able to work on any case only after being asked to do so by local law enforcement and then making sure that the elected prosecutor is also in agreement as well as the family being committed to the idea can be difficult to make happen at times.”
I asked Ms. Siegler about what the most important criteria is to be considered in potentially going in to a cold case. “The age of the witnesses is always an important factor. The easiest way to explain it is by saying that I like cases that have a lot of 'play' or potential for being cleared.”
As a fan of the show, I know that happy endings don't always occur. There is an amount of hope that is established when the team comes into town to focus on a cold case for a family. When they are told that the case won't go anywhere and that the murderer has gotten away with the crime it is difficult to watch. With that being said, knowing that there aren't always happy endings makes the show more real and causes the viewer to run the gamut of emotions along with the family. I wondered if Ms. Siegler has ever run into fans who disagree with the format of the show and the lack of “happy endings” with each case. “We have learned that you can't please everybody. The continuing frustration for me both now and as a former prosecutor is with that group of people who believe that things like what you see on 'fake' television shows really solve cases when we all know they do not.”
In another interview Ms. Siegler stated, “We've been working for the government since we were babies, making no money, working on murder cases and working with cops our whole lives – so we know that world, we know the criminal justice system, we know all of that.” I believe that by having this knowledge the Cold Justice team can translate to viewers that not all crimes can be solved like the one's seen on scripted television. “We're making things happen on cases that have been sitting around for years, for people who have given up hope, and for cops who haven't been able to have the luxury and the time to focus on those cases. We get to make that happen and it's a wonderful thing.” But what about those unfortunate instances where the hope is dashed simply because there are too many factors standing in the way to allow for closure? How does Ms. Siegler handle those moments? “Those moments continue to be outweighed by the 'good' endings, thank goodness. We hope to continue doing this until cases quit coming or until we are exhausted!”
In most scripted crime dramas circumstantial evidence doesn't make a case and it usually isn't good enough for a case to make it to trial. However, watching Ms. Siegler make a point that circumstantial cases can be stronger cases than others was an interesting thing to watch. In an episode, Ms. Siegler picked up one pencil and broke it in half. Then she picked up two, four, and then a handful and held them all together and tried to break them. She wasn't able to do so. This is how circumstantial evidence becomes strong. Each piece of the puzzle is added together to get the bigger picture. I asked Ms. Siegler why she thought it was so hard for people to understand that not everything is solved with DNA. “Because of shows like 'CSI' and such where people come to think everything can be solved in 40 minutes or less. It continues to make me crazy as it does prosecutors all across this country.”
The Cold Justice team is coming to two small towns close to our region. On Friday, May 15th, the team comes to Paducah, KY to investigate the case of a beloved doctor who was found murdered. The following Friday, the team investigates a cold case in Cleveland, TN. If their current record is any clue, the cold cases won't be cold for very long. Since the premiere of the show, the Cold Justice team has assisted local law enforcement with securing “15 arrests, eight criminal indictments, four confessions, two guilty pleas,” and helped secure a 22 year prison sentence. This doesn't take into consideration the numbers of families the team has helped provide a sense of closure nor the number of relatives who have been given hope that their cold case might be solved. When it all comes down to it, hope is all that really matters and Ms. Siegler is on a team that makes this little four letter word stand tall against the winds of a tornado.
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