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13 Investigates: Getting Away with murder

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — More people have been murdered so far in 2020 in Rockford than any year in the last decade, this year more people are getting away with it.

Just one in three murders has charges attached to it, meaning the murder solve rate is 33%.

27 people in Rockford have been murdered, the majority of them shot and killed. That number was zero until March 11, 2020. Since then, 26 more people were killed and 18 of them are unsolved.

To put that into perspective, flip a coin. You have a better chance of getting away with murder in 2020 in Rockford than you do predicting heads or tails.

Why? Ask Pamela Whitside why.

"Watching my son take his last breath at the hospital will always be in my head," she said with a photo of her son, Jarvis Wilder, in her lap. "I know the public, family, or so-called friends know what happened. I wish they'd come forward."

Three people were in the car with Wilder when he was shot and killed in the 4500 block of Newburg Road. They dropped him off at SwedishAmerican Hospital and ran.

"She said the last word my son said on the way to the hospital, she said 'we're getting close, hold on.' He said, 'mom,'" Whitside said of Wilder's girlfriend who was also shot.

As Rockford Police Chief Dan O'Shea why.

"The vast majority [of unsolved murders] are because people aren't coming forward," Chief O'Shea said.

Chief O'Shea does know why people don't come forward, especially in 2020. He tells 13 Investigates that the majority of shootings and murders this year are due to two groups fighting.

"Their only mentality is 'you shot at us, we're shooting at you.' 'You killed them, now we're going to kill one of you,'" Chief O'Shea added.

Another reason why so many are unsolved? Police cannot do any outreach or form any bonds with people throughout the Rockford community due to COVID-19. Chief O'Shea highlighted the high solve rate in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

"We continued I can't tell you the number of outreach programs," he said. "You've seen what we've done. Then in 2020, we can't do any of them."

The lack of programming and protests around the country also lowered the trust in police, according to Chief O'Shea.

"The protests themselves across the country don't have anything to do really with the homicide rate, but the lack of cooperation and trust in the police exploded this year," he added.

In 2020, the murder solve rate, or number of murders where someone is charged is just one in three. Since 2010, 231 people have been murdered in Rockford, still 91 of them are unsolved. If you break that down year-by-year, 2020 has the highest number of murders and by far the most unsolved.

"We have a number of individuals who absolutely, unequivocally refuse to provide information to the police," he added. "This isn't CSI, we can't put up big digital walls like Tony Stark, that's not reality. We cannot solve murders in an hour."

If someone does decide to come forward, they can be protected, to a point. State's Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross acknowledges Winnebago County does not have a witness protection program like larger Illinois counties, though her office does relocate people. Her office told 13 Investigates it does not keep track of the number of people it has helped with relocation, saying it was a case-by-case basis.

"It can be very intimidating, they can be ostracized, they could be targeted by individuals who don't want them to come forward," Hite Ross said. "Obviously you can't force anyone to cooperate."

Hite Ross does believe the job is getting done, even though the numbers this year are so low.

"I think we are successful in doing our jobs in getting justice for murder victims," she added.

Yet, people like Pamela Whitside haven't seen justice for years and wonder if they ever will.

"My son, he wasn't perfect or anything in the world, but he was mine and he didn't have to lose his life like that," she said.

Comparing Rockford to other cities

13 Investigates decided to take the number of solved murders a step further, remember a murder is solved when someone faces charges.

Rockford has seen 27 murders in 2020, 18 of them are unsolved.

Let's compare that number to other cities of similar size in Illinois:

Joliet, Springfield, Peoria and Aurora have all had fewer than half the number of murders Rockford has had in 2020. Aurora did have the lowest solve rate and the same solve rate of Rockford, though it had about a fifth the number of murders.

Convicting murders in our area

13 Investigates also looked at how murder is convicted in our area by looking at data as far back as the court would give us.

Since 2012, 148 people have been charged with murder and had a verdict in their trial in the 17th Judicial Circuit, that encompasses Winnebago and Boone Counties. Only half of them were found guilty of that murder charge, 74 were found guilty. 44 of them had their murder charge dismissed, though many were still charged with other offenses and the same for the 26 found not guilty.

In another, separate interview, State's Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross would not comment on the statistics specifically, but did say she believes the process works.

"The criminal process is just that, its a process," she said. "So, when a person is charged with a crime, whether it is a petty offense, a misdemeanor or a felony, it is the state's burden to prove that person guilty without a reasonable doubt. Whether or not that is achieved is part of the process. So, I'm not one to criticize the verdict because that is part of the criminal process.

James Stratton

James Stratton is the Evening Anchor at 13 WREX and reports for 13 Investigates He joined the team in August, 2018 after working at KWQC TV-6 in Davenport Iowa. His work in Illinois and Iowa has been awarded in both states, along with Edward R. Murrow and Emmy Awards at 13 WREX.

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