The deep grief of losing a loved one to a violent crime cannot be understood by anyone who hasn’t experienced it, and knowing that the person’s killer has not been brought to justice must be a source of indescribable pain and anxiety.

Several people who have had such an experience shared their stories recently in Augusta, in support of a bill that would create a cold case homicide unit to solve murders that happened two years ago or longer. Among them was Lise Ouellette of Saco, who lost her 15-year-old daughter in a murder that rocked these communities 15 years ago. The Feb. 10, 1999 murder has never been solved, and Ouellette is one of many family members and friends of murder victims statewide who are still waiting for justice, for answers, for closure.

In all, the state has 120 unsolved cold case homicides and suspected homicides, dating back to 1953, according to Attorney General William Stokes.

The bill to create a cold case homicide unit, LD 1734, was proposed by State Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, inspired by the unsolved 1980 murder of his friend’s teenage daughter. It would cost an estimated $530,000 in the first year and about $430,000 each year thereafter, with the funds used for equipment and to hire a prosecutor, two police detectives and a crime laboratory worker for the state Attorney General’s office, who would work exclusively on these cases.

There is no denying the suffering endured by the friends and family members of the victims of unsolved murders, but while we do not seek to minimize their pain in any way, we cannot support the creation of this new crime unit at this time.

The state simply cannot afford to add more than half a million dollars to its budget in the coming year, and nearly half a million each year thereafter, to fund this new unit. With the state’s current fiscal situation, approval of this bill would not only be imprudent, but irresponsible.

Just Wednesday, Gov. LePage allowed the revenue sharing bill to become law, preventing $40 million in cuts to municipalities. Retaining the 40-year-old revenue sharing program, in which towns and cities get a 5 percent cut of the state’s income and sales tax, was a lengthy fight. Town managers were in an uproar, noting that basic services such as waste removal and snowplowing, as well as infrastructure maintenance, would be impacted by the loss of this funding, while driving up property taxes.

A group convened this summer to find a savings of $40 million to avoid the revenue sharing cut, but that amount could not be agreed upon. Now the Democrat-controlled Legislature’s new law, which goes into effect in 90 days, would use $21 million of the state’s rainy day fund to go toward revenue sharing. Another $4 million is set to be drawn away from tax breaks, and $15 million will come from unused projected surplus revenue, according to the Democrats.

Because of the surplus withdrawal, Gov. LePage said earlier this week that he plans to once again hold off on signing voter-approved bonds, out of concern that issuing the bonds now will hurt the state’s credit rating by leaving only $38 million in the rainy day fund. He wants to wait until there is $60 million in the fund, meanwhile putting off important investments in infrastructure and education, among other issues.

With all of this fiscal wrangling and so many other demands on Maine’s limited resources ”“ for causes as varied as health care expansion and a proposed electronic records system for the courts ”“ this is clearly not the time to be adding a new unit to the AG’s office. It is a time to cut back, consolidate and streamline state operations, not expand them, regardless of public pleas for additional services, no matter how heart-wrenching.

Currently, the state has one person assigned exclusively to cold cases: Assistant Attorney General Lara Nomani, who works with local detectives to find justice for these unsolved murders, according to press reports. The AG’s Office has charged people in 13 cold case homicides since 1998, using new evidence such as DNA sampling and leads from both in and out of state, according to press reports.

They are making progress, however slow it may be, but that is largely the nature of police work. When leads can be found, they are followed by local detectives, many of whom are personally committed to solving the few lingering mysteries that affected their own towns. In many of these cases, however, the trail has gone “cold,” hence the name, and adding more people to the case may not prove to be as fruitful as hoped.

Local police departments should continue to work with the AG’s office on cold cases and, given the public interest in this bill, police chiefs should be looking to how they can arrange their staff schedules so they can dedicate more investigative time to solving the unprosecuted homicides that are still on the books in their jurisdictions.

We certainly can’t let people get away with murder, but the taxpayers of Maine cannot take on the extra burden of this new unit at this time.

 

Today’s editorial was written by Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Kristen by calling 282-1535, ext. 322, or via email at [email protected]