Murder Victim Playing Cards: In the Age of C.S.I. a Low-Tech Idea to Solving Cold Cases

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.

Ernest Jose Cervantes was shot to death during the robbery of his wife's beauty shop in 2003.  The beauty shop was closed for Mothers' Day but he and his wife were just returning from selling flowers and balloons on the street for the occasion.  The two had finished for the day and were returningthe merchandise to the shop when three men entered the store.

Ernest Jose Cervantes was shot to death during the robbery of his wife's beauty shop in 2003. The beauty shop was closed for Mothers' Day but he and his wife were just returning from selling flowers and balloons on the street for the occasion. The two had finished for the day and were returning the merchandise to the shop when three assailants entered the store.

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.

Sand Lynn Rollins' body was found in 1995 in a rural area.  The card indicates that she was a transient.  It appears that the photo used may have been a booking photo where she herself was arrested.  Murder victims come from all sorts of different backgrounds, and it is the responsibility of police departments to assure that all cases are given a top priority.

Sand Lynn Rollins' body was found in 1995 in a rural area. The card indicates that she was a transient. It appears that the photo used may have been a booking photo where she herself was arrested. Murder victims come from all sorts of different backgrounds, and it is the responsibility of police departments to assure that all cases are given a top priority.

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.

2 Responses to “Murder Victim Playing Cards: In the Age of C.S.I. a Low-Tech Idea to Solving Cold Cases”

  • Smitty:

    I liked this post when i read it yesterday and always love reading your blog, but the whole idea of these cards just didn’t sit well with me, and it was hard for me to put a finger on the exact reason. I haven’t lost a love one to a violent crime, but if I did, I guess I wouldn’t want a bunch of inmate dirtbags pawing over the photographs day after day. And lets face it, if these guys really had any morals then they probably wouldn’t be in prison to start with. Put the missing on milk cartons or posters, and keep their sacred images away from the kind of people that led to their disappearance in the first place

  • Faith:

    Your missing the point Smitty. Yes it is some what distasteful and counterintuitive to hand over the photos and info to the inmates by way of the playing cards. However, to the family members of murder victims in cold cases, the greatest enemy is fading memories, is obscurity, is “moving on”. As the media rushes to cover the new headline “murder of the week”, the fear to families is that their loved one is simply forgotten. So let the inmates paw over the photos of missing even though the odds are against a meaningful tip are astronomical. But to these forgotten families, there is a huge difference between a glimmer of hope, and no hope at all.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR….
Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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