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Are People Getting Away With Murder?

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Mikia's grandmother, Shannon Hooten Mikia's grandmother, Shannon Hooten
Former Metro homicide detective Brad Corcoran Former Metro homicide detective Brad Corcoran
Former Metro police chief Ronal Serpas Former Metro police chief Ronal Serpas

By Jennifer Kraus
Investigative Reporter

It's a tale of two murders just days apart. One murder got the celebrity treatment, and the other got the same treatment most murders get. 

It's one of the truths about crime in Nashville uncovered by an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation. The truth is: most murders in Music City get detectives with very little experience heading up such investigations.

Some insiders said justice isn't being served. 

When Titans quarterback Steve McNair was found shot to death in a downtown condo last summer, Metro police immediately sent their top homicide detectives to the scene. 

Metro police spokesman Don Aaron told reporters outside McNair's condo that afternoon, "The investigation is going to be conducted by the police department's Centralized Homicide Unit." 

That unit is also known as the Cold Case Unit. 

Former Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas explained to NewsChannel 5 Investigates why the case immediately went to the Cold Case team. 

"In this case, we wanted to make sure we had detectives that had more experience," Serpas said.

The Cold Case detectives have years of experience investigating murders. 

"All murder scenes generate the same type of police response, the same experts who came to this scene come to all murder scenes," Aaron said the same day that McNair was killed. 

Yet, when 12-year-old Mikia Woodland was shot to death just five days later by gunmen who stormed her grandmother's home in the middle of the night, her case was assigned to a detective who had not headed up a murder investigation in almost two years. 

When NewsChannel 5 Investigates shared that with Mikia's grandmother, Shannon Hooten, she reacted with surprise. 

"I had no idea and if I had any idea in the beginning, I would have asked for somebody with experience," Hooten said. "I would have fought for somebody with experience."

Then, six weeks after Mikia's murder, the detective was replaced by another detective who we found had not headed up a murder investigation in three years.

Again, Mikia's grandmother had no idea. 

When we shared that information with Hooten, at first, she sat on her living room couch in silence, shaking her head in disbelief. 

"Why would they even give the job to an even less experienced detective?" asked Hooten. 

When Ronal Serpas became chief in 2004, he decentralized the department. He got rid of Metro's experienced homicide unit that investigated all murders in Nashville. He also reassigned other specialized detectives and sent them out into the precincts to investigate burglaries, car break-ins, assaults and murders. 

"Do you think cases suffered because of this?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked former Metro homicide detective Brad Corcoran. 

"Oh, I'm sure they did," Corcoran answered. "There's no doubt that they did suffer." 

Corcoran said after decentralization, detectives were often sent out on cases they weren't accustomed to. 

"Were there detectives who had not been trained to investigate murders investigating murders?" we asked. 

"Yes, and that was taking its toll over time because you had people that were doing jobs that they didn't want to do," Corcoran said. 

Serpas does not think there's a problem. 

"Our detectives in the precincts have solved some really big cases, Bellacino's, the professor in East Nashville," Serpas said. 

Since Serpas decentralized detectives, the number of unsolved murders has shot up. He said the same thing was happening across the country. Both former and current investigators said decentralization is why it's happening here. 

"Are people getting away with murder?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates wanted to know.

"Obviously," Corcoran responded, blaming the decentralization of the detectives. "It's not working. And I think somebody's going to have to step up and say we need to do something different."

Under the current system, detectives no longer focus on just solving murders. In fact, NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered multiple examples of where detectives were given other crimes to solve just as they were starting work on a new murder case. 

In Mikia Woodland's case, police insist they worked around the clock to find her killers. 

"Ever since July when this murder happened, this has been the first thing they thought about when they came in to the office and the last thing they thought about when they left," said Hermitage precinct commander Todd Henry at a news conference last week.

But we discovered that, just two weeks after Mikia was killed, the lead detective started getting new assignments: two shoplifting cases, an assault, a vandalism and two burglaries -- all while he was supposed to be finding the young girl's killer. 

"A murder case should be focused on until it's solved," Mikia's grandmother said, "and if you have a lot of other things that you have to focus on, there's going to be some neglect there." 

For ten months, Mikia's murder remained unsolved. After NewsChannel 5 Investigates began asking questions more than a month ago, police announced last week they'd finally found Mikia's killers. 

"They [detectives] spent well over 400 to 500 hours in the last month," Commander Henry revealed. "It's another murder off the books." 

Hooten said her granddaughter deserved better.

While Steve McNair's murder was solved in five days, Mikia's took ten months. 

"If we had a more experienced detective, I believe it wouldn't have gone on this long," said Hooten. "Mikia was just as important to me as McNair was to any and everybody else." 

Serpas insisted that murders these days are tougher to solve and detectives across the country are having the same trouble solving these cases.

But one of the police department's own audits two years ago found Nashville was solving fewer murders than other cities similar in size.

E-mail: jkraus@newschannel5.com

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