The plain fact of the matter is this: Police in the United States aren’t very good at solving homicides. According to multiple sources, the homicide clearance rate, i.e., how many homicides are solved by police, dropped from 71 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 2020. Now, I don’t even trust the 71 percent figure, given the number of wrongfully convicted folks, poorer policing practices, and really, anything prior to the advent of DNA. That caveat aside, in 2020, police only solved half of the homicides in the United States! That’s a staggering figure to consider. I think people assume because of the advent of DNA and better policing practices, it would be more difficult to “get away with murder,” as it were. But it’s actually … not. Overall, there are also estimates of 200,000 cold case homicides in the United States. That’s a lot of unsolved homicides, and certainly, there will be no shortage of true crime podcasts any time soon (also, again, if the clearance rate is 50 percent, then about 6,000 unsolved homicides cases are added to that total each year).
I say all this to say, it didn’t surprise me listening to Dateline NBC’s newest podcast series, The Girl in the Blue Mustang, that the police fumbled the case and wrongfully convicted someone for it. Because, again, police are not very good at solving homicides! And even the ones they do purportedly solve, they didn’t actually solve them, as it turns out. Wrongfully convicting someone for a homicide is particularly odious because not only did someone spend time in prison for a crime they did not commit, but the true killer has absconded justice.
I’m being somewhat harsh, to be fair. An interesting article that controls for other factors argues that the number of murders committed with a firearm increased from 50 percent in the 1960s to 80 percent today, and that homicides committed with a gun are more difficult to solve for myriad reasons; ergo, some of that homicide clearance rate drop can be explained by the corresponding increase in homicides involving a gun. But I also think my basic thesis is correct: Solving crime, and particularly, solving a homicide, is difficult and we’ve overinflated and overemphasized the ability and skillset of most police detectives to solve them.
With the podcast The Girl in the Blue Mustang, yes, the homicide involved a gun, but it also involved bad police work. To back up, Michelle O’Keefe, an 18-year-old aspiring actress, was found shot to death in her blue Mustang in a California park and ride in 2000. Police arrested the park and ride’s security guard, former Iraq War veteran Raymond Jennings, for the murder, he’s eventually convicted (I should emphasize eventually because it took three trials), and he spent more than 11 years in prison before being exonerated. The reason police had tunnel vision with Jennings isn’t because there was compelling physical evidence connecting him to the crime — there wasn’t any — but because Jennings was stupid and talked to the police. A lot. And he basically talked himself and them into being culpable for the murder.
I think basic, non-tunnel vision police work would have revealed far likelier suspects connected to area gangs, whose members were present at the scene of the crime.
Obviously, this is a terribly sad story in every direction, first because of Michelle’s death, but also because of the ripple effect her death had on her family. Her parents, Michael and Patricia, divorced. Jason, her brother, was a promising MLB prospect, suffered an injury, fell into drugs, and then overdosed and died. These parents lost both of their children. And then, they don’t understand Jennings’ exoneration because nothing is explained to them, and from that vantage point, they’re understandably upset.
Also, as an aside, Keith Morrison, you know I love you, but in 2010 when the episode first aired on Dateline NBC and then as a podcast series in 2023, can we stop talking about “lie detectors” like they mean anything? They mean nothing! I’ve written about this issue before, but I digress.
I didn’t think this podcast series was as interesting as the prior few Dateline NBC podcast series, such as, The Seduction (I was so enamored by that one, I covered it in two parts!), but I do think it’s worth listening to if you want to see how two good men free an innocent man from prison.