3 On Your Side Investigates: A Plea for Justice

As more homicide cases go unsolved each year, many families wonder when they’ll get closure

3 On Your Side Investigates: A Plea for Justice

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Detectives in the Capital City are solving killings at a lower rate than they were the year before, a declining pattern that’s continued since 2016, according to a 3 On Your Side analysis of four years’ worth of information released by the Jackson Police Department.

Furthermore, official numbers released by the department show higher clearance rates than we found, a discrepancy that proves JPD doesn’t always release new developments on cold cases to the public.

Since 2016, more than 300 families in the Capital City have had to deal with a loved one being killed.

Of those homicides, our analysis shows nearly a third remain unsolved, including the case of 19-year-old Jauan Tolbert, struck by a bullet while driving on Interstate 55 last December.

The gunshot wound left him brain dead.

“In my mind, I thought that he was gonna pull through. I leaned to his ear and I prayed for him,” Tunja Tolbert said. "When the doctor did the rounds and came in and they took him off the machine and he never responded, he never responded. That’s when I fell apart.”

Jauan Tolbert (Source: Family)
Jauan Tolbert (Source: Family) (Source: WLBT)

For the last two months, Tunja Tolbert has had to endure not only the pain of losing her son Jauan, but also the uncertainty that his killer will ever be found.

On December 2, Tunja said her son was driving to his grandmother’s house after getting off work at UPS, taking Interstate 55 North.

Suddenly, sometime after 1 a.m., someone pulled alongside Jauan and fired at least one shot, hitting him in the head.

His vehicle swerved right and collided with a barrier near Beasley Road.

Paramedics, already in the area, stopped to offer assistance and transport Jauan to the hospital.

“He was on life support. They told me -- the doctor came in and had a talk with me and his dad, because he had been shot in the head, and because he went into shock, he had -- he was brain dead," Tunja said.

In the hours that followed, Tunja said she had to make a decision.

Jauan's mother, Tunja Tolbert, said she's beyond frustrated over her son's unsolved killing and the lack of information she's received from the Jackson Police Department.
Jauan's mother, Tunja Tolbert, said she's beyond frustrated over her son's unsolved killing and the lack of information she's received from the Jackson Police Department.

“[It] was very hard for me, because Jauan was my baby, and I loved him so much. To make that decision was very difficult,” Tunja said. "Sometimes I wish I maybe could have waited a few more days, just to see if he would wake up.”

Jauan died December 3, one day after being shot on the interstate.

Almost immediately, his mother said, the Jackson Police Department reached out and she began giving them information about two people she believed might have been involved in her son’s death.

The biggest lead came from someone who posted on social media and referenced the killing.

Tunja said the Facebook post, which read in part, “found em slumped on I-55," appeared on December 2.

Tunja Tolbert believed this Facebook post and the person behind it served as a lead to her son's killing. When police questioned the person about it, Tolbert said, he requested an attorney, and the detective ended up releasing the guy.
Tunja Tolbert believed this Facebook post and the person behind it served as a lead to her son's killing. When police questioned the person about it, Tolbert said, he requested an attorney, and the detective ended up releasing the guy.

She said the JPD detective took the person into custody to interrogate him and specifically asked him about the Facebook post.

That ended the conversation.

“That guy said, ‘I want to speak to an attorney.’ I said, ‘Okay, what would that leave you to think?’ If you ask this particular question and he says, ‘I want to speak to an attorney,’ do you think maybe that he knows something? Because I would," Tunja said.

According to her, the detective didn’t push any further, and ended up releasing the person without charging them.

At one point, Tunja drove from her home in Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson to talk to the JPD detective herself, but that fell through, too.

“He never answered the phone and it went to his voicemail. I began then, at that point, started calling downtown and leaving messages," Tunja said. "When’s someone supposed to be contacting me? They never did. Maybe after two weeks, finally, he answered the phone and he said his phone had gotten ran over in doing a warrant chase or something. And so I’m like, okay, well that means that you lost all the information that I provided to you.”

Despite providing that information again, Tunja said she hasn’t gotten much in return.

“There are a lot of questions and answers that I don’t know, like what type of gun was my son shot with? I couldn’t even get that information," Tunja said.

Jauan’s case is one of 94 unsolved homicide cases dating back to 2016.

3 On Your Side dug through four years’ worth of killings to see how many of those cases turned cold.

Official numbers provided by the department show that in 2016, JPD solved 81 percent of the homicides it worked.

That rate fell each year after 2016, however.

Our records -- based on individual case information released to the public -- shows fewer cases solved than JPD indicated.

This graph shows JPD's homicide solve rates compared with our own in-house numbers, which come from information released by JPD for each case. The discrepancy, Sgt. Roderick Holmes, comes from the fact that the department doesn't always release to the public when a homicide case is solved.
This graph shows JPD's homicide solve rates compared with our own in-house numbers, which come from information released by JPD for each case. The discrepancy, Sgt. Roderick Holmes, comes from the fact that the department doesn't always release to the public when a homicide case is solved.

Sgt. Roderick Holmes said that’s because they don’t always tell the public when they name a suspect, which effectively clears a case.

Holmes said sometimes revealing a suspect’s identity makes them harder to capture.

So far in 2020, detectives have solved 6 of the 13 killings that took place in Jackson.

However, keep in mind what “solved” actually means.

Technically the double homicide outside Baptist hospital last week counts as solved because the suspect was identified.

In 2019, the department said it had a homicide clearance rate of 61 percent, the lowest solve rate since 2016.

“That tells me either that someone is not doing their job or there’s not enough investigator officers out there - enough detectives to solve, get these cases solved,” Tunja said.

You may have heard that before.

Last year, our 3 On Your Side investigation revealed a critical shortage of patrol officers within the department, far fewer than Chief James Davis was willing to admit publicly.

Our investigation also found indications that the department used supervisors and other task forces to beef up that total number to make it look like there were more officers working a beat.

However, we didn’t know how that officer shortage affected detectives, so 3 On Your Side asked JPD for a list of its detectives.

The department sent a list of 48 sworn officers in major investigations.

Deputy Chief Deric Hearn, who serves as the head of major investigations, later said in a written statement that only 37 of those officers are actually assigned to work cases.

However, multiple sources within the department say even fewer are actually working cases right now.

It would appear that, just like last year, JPD’s command staff released a list of detectives and added their supervisors, including Hearn, to make their investigative efforts look bigger.

However, Hearn said in a statement that the department readily admits one of its challenges in solving homicides is manpower.

“It has become increasingly more difficult to manage the current caseload and more investigators are necessary,” Hearn said. “However, we make every attempt to utilize the investigators we have to the best of our ability.”

The department’s list indicates it has 8 detectives assigned to Robbery/Homicide.

Take those detectives, add more than ninety unsolved cases just in the last four years, and that might explain why Tunja said her son’s case hasn’t gotten the attention it needs.

“I still trusted that he could do it, but after the little information that I was getting back from him, at that point, that’s when I said, ‘Maybe this may be too big for you.’ I felt like he wasn’t doing what you should be doing," Tunja said. "I understand some cases may take a little longer to solve, but if you’re not doing the footwork then of course it would take even longer.”

How do JPD’s solve rates stack up nationally?

The department solved homicides at a higher rate than most law enforcement agencies in the U.S. in 2016, 2017 and 2018, according to data from the FBI and official numbers from JPD.

The FBI will release 2019′s numbers in October of this year.

Chief Davis declined an on-camera interview despite repeated requests dating back more than a week ago.

The department released these answers to questions 3 On Your Side sent in lieu of that on-camera interview, citing these responses as coming from the man in charge of major investigations, Deputy Chief Deric Hearn.

Question: According to data from your department, the rate which JPD solves homicides cases has been falling since 2016. Can you explain why that’s happening?

Response: During the prior administrations, there was a hiring freeze of additional personnel, and because of that decision, the Police Department has been making attempts to replenish the rank and file of the entire department since that time. With the current personnel assigned to investigate homicides, we have shown a decrease in solvability over the past 3 plus years, making the caseload a key factor in solving crime.

Question: What are some of the challenges facing the department in terms of solving these homicides?

Response: The need for more personnel, investments in technology designed to help investigators work more efficiently and cooperation from our leaders in developing strategies to strengthen the community partnership with the Police Department for a decline in violent crimes.

Question: Does the department have enough detectives who specifically work cases?

Response: It has become increasingly more difficult to manage the current caseload and more investigators are necessary.

Question: How many currently work cases?

Response: We currently have 37 Investigators assigned to the Major Investigations Division who actively work cases.

Question: To that point, does the department have enough detectives who specifically work cases?

Response: Again, I reiterate it has become increasingly more difficult to manage the current caseload and more investigators are necessary. However, we make every attempt to utilize the investigators we have to the best of our ability.

Question: Can you give any updates to the Jauan Tolbert case?

Response: There has been no suspect(s) identified in the Tolbert case. However, we cannot discuss the specifics of an on-going investigation.

Question: Jauan’s mother Tunja says the detective in that case has sometime gone weeks without responding to her when she asks for updates. What do you tell your detectives about interacting with families of victims to ensure they’re being heard?

Response: It is our goal to communicate with the victims’ families as often as needed to provide them updates, but due to the caseload and manpower, sometimes it may not be as frequent as the families feel is necessary. However, if there is a new development in the case we notify the families immediately.

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