Cold Case Journalism:
Exploring, Investigating and Reporting on Unsolved Cases
Journalism students at the University of Utah may not expect to investigate murders as part of their curriculum, but that’s exactly what they did last semester in COMM 5850: Cold Case Journalism. Throughout spring semester, students participating in the class used investigative techniques to explore a string of homicides in Salt Lake City from 1978 where all victims were part of the LGBTQ+ community. Together, they developed the results of their efforts into an in-depth article recently published by the Salt Lake Tribune.
The students began the semester by investigating three cases, but ultimately focused on the unsolved murder of Doug Coleman. Coleman was a young, shy, gay man with artistic sensibilities while also dealing with severe mental health issues according to his family. He was murdered while walking home and left in an empty Union Pacific boxcar after being shot in the head and stomach. Although police had a prime suspect, he was never charged.
The class, led by journalist Eric Peterson, was divided into groups that worked on different parts of the story and every group made unique contributions to the final piece.
“In the first days of the class, I told the students how I had spent a lot of time looking into these cases for previous reporting I had done, but that there was always a benefit to having fresh eyes look over a case,” said Peterson. “That was proved very true when one of the students in the class applied some Google operators to search the case number from one of the police reports to see what might come up.”
The student was able to dig up an internal city budget document from 2014 where the police department named the prime suspects in the Coleman murder. Because the department had named these suspects, the class was able to use that information to argue that the full Coleman police report should be released unredacted.
“This is usually a difficult request and likely to be denied especially when a case is still open, even if it is very cold. But the argument worked, and we got the full file.”
With the full report, the students were able to tell the story of the case more completely than it had ever been done before. When Peterson interviewed Coleman's family members, they weren't even aware of the names of the department's top suspect.
The students spent the first quarter of the class learning how to understand documents and file public records requests under the Government Records Access and Management Act, better known as GRAMA. They then focused on investigative interviewing and received training in trauma-informed interviewing from guest speakers. Erin Alberty, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, spoke to the class about difficult kinds of interviews and Justin Boardman, a former sex-crimes detective, spoke on trauma-informed investigations. The students also heard from a private investigator, a cold case detective from the Unified Police department, a gay historian and more. The class spent time learning how to search archival news articles and pulling records from the university's special collections department. They even visited a forensic DNA lab to understand the scientific challenges of clearing cold cases.
The students split into groups to work on the various aspects of the case. One group focused on asking prosecutors about why charges weren't brought in the case. Another group focused on LGBTQ history from the time period and another group focused on how the police investigated the case. One group of students, who were interested in going into broadcast journalism, developed a short video to go along with the story.
Students participating in the class walked away with valuable journalism skills, such as requesting documents, fighting records denials, investigative interviewing and most importantly putting a large investigative enterprise project together from start to finish. The class is open to all communication majors who have successfully passed COMM 3555.