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18.08.2021

For Lack of Evidence

Some resources can be replaced. But what happens when there is a lack of evidence, but you know who the offender is? Or you at least have a suspicion. In an interview, Chief Detective Jörg Schmitt-Kilian talks about evidence that comes to light decades after the crime and the moment that the felon is suddenly standing before you.

Jörg Schmitt-Kilian, how long do you keep looking if you haven’t found enough evidence in your case?

Schmitt-Kilian: You keep looking until you have it. But if the search comes up empty, the team working on the crime is reduced in size, and at some point the prosecutor stops the process. But if new evidence comes up, some cases are reopened. There is no statute of limitations on murder. This is occurring a lot right now. You couldn’t perform DNA analyses before, but samples for DNA matches are available today. I know of a cold case involving a woman who was murdered in 1994. In that case, the murderer was convicted because he committed another offense and his DNA ended up in a file.

Cold Case

“Cold Cases” refers to unsolved crimes for which there is new evidence, either from new testimony from witnesses or DNA analyses. In many countries, there is no statute of limitations on serious crimes such as murder and rape. The first special cold case unit was established in the United States in the late 1990s. The English term has spread to Germany as well, although it is applied exclusively to homicides. The country’s independent cold-case units have only been around since 2015.  

So a hit isn’t evidence in itself?

No. Sometimes it’s not proof, but rather a reason to take up the case again. Actually, after such a long time, some offenders are so surprised that they break down during interrogation and confess. Another reason for their behavior is that they can finally ease their consciences.

Can there be evidence that you have but can’t use?

No. Sometimes it’s not proof, but rather a reason to take up the case again. Actually, after such a long time, some offenders are so surprised that they break down during interrogation and confess. Another reason for their behavior is that they can finally ease their consciences.

Why not? Can you cite an example?

Let’s take narcotics: You have a dealer under surveillance and you see him coming out of a location that is a proven drug house. But his lawyer says, “Maybe he was visiting the apartment next door.” If we don’t have other evidence, the accused person will get the benefit of the doubt here.

So what seems to be evidence is suddenly negotiable?

On one occasion, we arrested the son of a well-known municipal politician on whom 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) of heroin were found. His attorney asked whether we might have convinced the suspect to make a delivery. The problem: As a narcotics investigator, I can only make specific statements on tactical anti-crime measures in court if I have been given an exemption. Wily attorneys often try to make officers seem as though they aren’t credible. They stray into your private life, ask all kinds of questions, and as soon as you say, “I don’t recall,” they counter with: “Ah, but somehow you do remember that detail in this case. You may have worked on the case two years earlier.”

Wily attorneys often try to make officers seem as though they aren’t credible.

Jörg Schmitt-Kilian, chief detective and former narcotics investigator

Do investigators learn the outcome of the cases they were investigating?

The spectacular cases, yes. But in practice, you get totally caught up in your next case for quite a while. Some trials go on forever. I can’t remember everyone that I put in jail. Once, after playing tennis, I was taking a shower, and someone suddenly began speaking to me. It turned out that I was responsible for sending him to prison for seven years. I felt queasy for a moment, and then it was okay. “You did your job,” he told me, “and you dealt with me fairly.”

On the subject of police resources: Were you well-equipped at the time?

Back then, our resources weren’t as good as they are today. But staffing is always in short supply, especially in the area of organized crime. For the most part, we can only infiltrate these areas with covert measures, which is labor-intensive. And now the Internet is adding new issues, and the police have to continually handle more tasks. It’s possible for an organized crime department to be reduced in size because other basic areas would otherwise be neglected.

Jörg Schmitt-Kilian

A chief detective and former narcotics investigator, he spent more than forty years on the job.

Today, he holds readings, training sessions and events on the prevention of violence and illicit drug use. Schmitt-Kilian also writes crime novels based on real cases as well as advice books and travel guides. His SPIEGEL bestseller “From Junkie to Ironman“ was made into a film starring Uwe Ochsenknecht. The TV movie “Jenny” was based on his novel “The Dealer and the Detective.” 

Find out more at: www.schmitt-kilian-aktuell.de

Do you remember a case that was particularly puzzling?

Yes, it was obvious that a heroin dealer was deeply involved in the drug scene. But based on her resume, she was completely clean. There was nothing that we could find in her past. Nothing at all. It was only after we arrested her that we learned she had adopted the identity of her sister in Canada. The computer spit out a huge file once we entered her real name. In fact, she was a main witness in an unsolved murder case in the Netherlands. She used that as a bargaining chip after her arrest.

She was willing to testify in exchange for a more lenient penalty?

Due to her addiction, she was in therapy. The principle of “therapy, not punishment” was at work here. She was released from custody to meet with me. The murder wasn’t my case, but my colleagues asked me to try to figure out what evidence she had. The end of the story was that she never showed up for the meeting. She seized the moment to vanish without a trace and is still at large. And the murder case is still unsolved.

Do your cases remain stored in your memory for a long time?

In my crime novels, I come up with literary solutions to some of the crimes. The case I described with the dealer was even filmed. In the novels, I often describe situations that seem invented to the reader. But sometimes reality surpasses even my fantasies.


This article originally appeared in ESSENTIAL, Freudenberg Sealing Technologies’ corporate magazine that covers, trends, industries and new ideas. To read more stories like this, click here.

Dossier Future Files
ESSENTIAL launched a loose sequence of short stories, each of which is set in its own fictional future. Some of them have recurring characters and settings, and some stand on their own. The goal is to play with very different visions as creatively as possible and bring the reader along on a thought experiment: What form could our future take – and what would it mean to us? Dossier: Future Files - Freudenberg FST

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