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SOCIETY Three Billboards and America’s Unsolved Murders

Published 31 Jan 2018 11:23AM

Words by Martha Glaister | Staff Writer




Three Billboards and America’s Unsolved Murders

One in three murders in America go unsolved.


With shows like Criminal Minds and CSI neatly solving murder cases in 60 minutes or less, the reality is very different, and the shocking truth is, homicides are less likely to be solved today than they were 40 years ago.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is being helmed as an Oscar frontrunner and follows a mother challenging the local authorities when, after 7 months, they have failed to catch her daughter’s killer.


The film follows Mildred through her despair, her frustration, her anger and need for answers and revenge. This is the reality for millions of families who are left waiting and wondering.

Mildred takes action into her own hands, putting up three billboards in her town aimed directly at the Police Chief - “Raped while dying, and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Mildred believes that keeping people talking about the case will help it to be solved;

“I don’t know what the police are doing. I haven’t heard a word from them in seven goddamn months. I’ll tell you this, I’ve heard an awful lot from them since I put them billboards up. The more you keep a case in the public eye, the better the chances are getting it solved…”


But is this true?

Many families just don’t have the money to pay for the constant exposure needed for billboards, television campaigns and flyers. Cases then become cold and remain so for years, sometimes forever.

But for the ones that do have the resources to remain in the public eye, is it true that they have better chances of getting solved as Mildred believes?

Take the case of Madeleine Mccann, abducted in 2007, her image was shown at football matches across Britain and public figures made appeals. The likes of Simon Cowell and J.K. Rowling gave thousands of their own money to help find Madeleine and keep the case in the forefront of people's minds.

Millions of pounds have been put into keeping her image in the public eye, but after 11 years the case is still no closer to being solved.




One of the most famous unsolved murders in American history is that of the Black Dahlia. In 1947 Elizabeth Short was found murdered and mutilated in a Los Angeles park, the local and national press heavily covered the story due to the brutality of the crime. The case was front page news for 35 days following the discovery of Elizabeth’s body.

Within a few months the case had gone cold and in 1949 a grand jury convened to discuss inadequacies in the LAPD's homicide unit based on their failure to solve numerous murders, especially those of women and children, in the past several years.

With a $10,000 reward (equivalent to $109,000), over 500 confessions and to this day books and films about the case, all the media attention and being kept in the public eye has brought the case no nearer to being solved.

With advances in DNA evidence, you would think catching a killer would be easier now than it was 40 years ago but with one in three murders going unsolved that doesn’t seem to be the case.


In Three Billboards Mildred questions the Police Chief why every man in town can’t be made to give a blood sample;

Willoughby:... right now there ain't too much more we could do.
Mildred: You could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of 8.
Willoughby: There are civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town?
Mildred: Pull blood from every man in the country.

This has in fact been done before and proved it can catch a killer in cases that may have otherwise gone unsolved.

The first case to use DNA for a criminal investigation was that of Dawn Ashworth and Lynda Mann, raped and murdered in 1983 and 1986. An arrest was made of 17-year-old Richard Buckland who had learning difficulties, he had admitted and then withdrawn his admission several times and was charged with Dawn’s murder.


Meanwhile, Alec Jeffreys had just discovered how to extract DNA from cells and attach it to photographic film, which showed a sequence of bars, he then realised that every individual could be identified with great precision.

Police, upon hearing about this, then asked Alec if he would be able to prove that Richard was the killer they were looking for. He tested blood and semen found on the girls and from Richard only to find there was no match.

The police then decided the only thing to do was to screen the entire neighbourhood.

Letters were sent to every male born between 1953 and 1970 who had lived or worked in the area at the time asking them to give a blood sample. After 8 months and with the lab struggling to keep up, 5,511 men had been tested. No matches were found.



A year after the murder of Dawn a friend of Colin Pitchfork confessed that he had given his blood sample impersonating Colin. The police then arrested and tested Colin who was found to have committed both murders.

Similarly, in the case of Christa Worthington, murdered in 2002, swab samples were collected from as many men from the area as possible, hoping that police would find a match with the evidence found at the crime scene. Hundreds volunteered. But the crime lab had not yet finished processing all of the DNA samples taken from the original suspects because their resources were overtaxed.

It was clear that the state was desperate to show that they were still working hard
on the case and trying to find the killer. He was eventually found, having given a sample previously and voluntarily.


So it is possible and it can be done, but with an estimated 400,000 untested rape kits alone, let alone for other types of crime, there is simply not enough staff, not enough money and not enough time.


The film has a theme of racist police and Chief Willoughby even admits “You got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the fags.”

This reflects the very real fact that black men are nearly three times as likely to be killed by legal intervention than white men. In New York City, for instance, 86 percent of 2013 homicides involving a white victim were solved, compared to only 45 percent of those involving a black victim.

This has led to the Black Lives Matter movement who hold protests speaking out against police killings of black people. The movement started in 2013 with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of African-American teen Trayvon Martin the preceding February.


There are many reasons that there are hundreds of thousands of unsolved murders, be it resources; both from families not having the money to keep it in the public eye or police not having the manpower, to potential racism and unwillingness of witnesses to come forward.

Cold cases leave remaining family and friends with no closure, do they know the killer?
Have they walked passed them in the street? Have the police given up?


The fact is murders are not wrapped up in a neat 60 minutes like many of the ever-growing popular TV shows lead us to believe. Three Billboards brilliantly reflects what is actually happening in the real world of crime, the pressure put on police, the torment of the families, and the victims who are never truly at rest with their cases remaining cold.

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