In these decks of cards, all 52 are face cards. Each one bears the face of a victim of an unsolved homicide. The cards are distributed in prisons with the hopes that an inmate will provide a badly needed tip.
While it is the high-tech C.S.I. investigation techniques that are featured on TV shows, it is often the low-tech solutions that solve real-life crimes. The idea of these cards apparently comes from the company Effective Playing Cards and Publications. This Florida company has produced cards in 10 states for distribution to inmates. The company has created thirty different decks and targets the decks to each geographical area. I received a set in the mail last week that were designed for the San Bernardino area of California. The cards are created with the support and encouragement of the surviving family members who are glad that the cases are being kept alive and attention is being drawn to the deceased. No cards exist for Washington State at this time.
In a prison culture where inmates have an abundance of time on their hands, the cards compels attention to the items in ways that a poster could not. The maker of the cards credit the cards with having solved four different cases across the nation. One homicide detective explained that distributing the decks is “like interviewing all 2500 inmates about 52 different homicides all at the same time.”
Despite the fact that this idea seems to be of little costs to investigative agencies, it has been a little slow to catch on, and little seems to be known of these cards. The below youtube video on the subject has been up for over six months, but has received only 68 views.
In addition to the expense of the cards, there is certainly an expense to sorting out the tips when received from inmates. Inmates are, as a whole, not a very reliable group when it comes to tips. Many could be looking to strike a deal to earn an early release, or could be looking for a way to transform themselves from a societal pariah to a local hero for coming forward. Detectives will look to see if the informant has pertinent information on the case that could not simply be gleaned from reading the newspapers.
I have learned, in the homicide cases that I have worked on,that in just about every high-profile case you will find attention seekers of all sorts claiming to have important information. Trying to determine the validity of such claims is not as easy as a person might suspect.
The playing cards in question focus on cold cases. Because crimes such as murder do not have a statute of limitations, police maintain an interest in such cases for decades. When I worked as a prosecutor, I often contemplated the value of police work on cold cases. Detectives in Ferry County made important progress in certain cases, see e.g. here. But there also needs to be accountability up the chain of command for time spent on cold cases. In general terms, not necessarily pertaining to my past position, I have feared that police work on cold cases sometimes consisted of having the case file spread out over several desks while a discouraged detective played solitaire. And such work is discouraging. You only need to review past Spokesman-Review articles with respect to the Spokane Serial Killer Task Force to learn how depressing that line of work can be. Big breaks in such cases are rare, and are usually preceded by years or decades of hard work done out of the spotlight. It is not the stuff of C.S.I. or newspaper headlines, but playing cards could, apparently, be a helpful tool in resolving such cases.