After swastikas were painted twice last month on the midtown Sacramento mural of Israeli-born Kings player Omri Casspi, the team, the Anti-Defamation League and Sacramento Crime Alert offered rewards totaling $3,000 to catch the culprit.
Until recently, a billboard on 16th Street prominently featured a $50,000 reward from the Governor's Office to catch the killer of Sio Meng Lai.
Written in English and Chinese and with a photo of Lai, the sign went up about a block from where the cook and father of two was gunned down while walking home the night of Nov. 26, 2007.
Such billboards are modern-day versions of the "Wanted Dead or Alive" bounty posters from the Old West. A horrible crime is committed. A reward is offered. A tipster comes forward. The crime is solved. Justice is done.
That's how it's supposed to work.
But while rewards do lead to some high-profile arrests, it's not an open-and-shut case that they're truly effective. Exhibit A: Under the governor's program that started under Ronald Reagan in 1967, 287 rewards have been offered, but only 20 have been paid, leaving more than $11.2 million unclaimed.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been far more willing to put out rewards than previous governors. He has issued 142, or nearly half the total, in his seven years in office. Last year, 31 rewards went out; 24 have been offered so far this year, including 11 announced on Thursday.
We live in a "show me the money" culture, but for many witnesses, no amount is worth the risk of retribution, even death, to themselves or their loved ones.
Besides the question of how well rewards actually work in catching criminals, there are broader, more philosophical issues.
In some ways, rewards are symbolic. They say that we care about a particular victim. But by choosing who gets that attention -- and who doesn't -- are we valuing one human life more than another?
And should we be paying a select few to do the right thing when brave people come forward with information all the time, just to make sure a criminal doesn't get away or to make their community safer?
Rewards are a high-profile example of the "snitching" model of law enforcement, in which people are compensated for turning in wrongdoers. The government's closer embrace of that strategy, however, troubles some criminal justice experts.
Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, is a prominent critic of police and prosecutors relying on informants, particularly in the war on drugs. Criminals get shorter sentences or escape arrest entirely -- benefits often more valuable than cash. The informants are "fabulously unreliable, " and their false or self-serving information compromises investigations, or leads to the arrest of innocent people or even wrongful convictions, she says.
The use of snitches also breeds distrust of police in communities beset by crime, she argues. The use of rewards to obtain justice is an "unproven theory." "We're asked to go on faith that offering money is a good way of bringing forward truthful information, " Natapoff said in an interview.
Last month, the highest court in Massachusetts barred prosecutors there from taking part in programs where rewards are given only if there's a conviction. In a murder case in which two witnesses received $2,000 each, the justices said that "the interests of justice" are not served when a reward is "contingent on the conviction of a defendant, rather than the provision of truthful information or testimony."
There has been no such ruling in California, the Governor's Office says, though we have a similar system: The person claiming a reward must voluntarily provide information leading to a conviction, and law enforcement officials and prosecutors recommend a payout to the governor, who makes the final decision.
Tom Sawyer, the governor's public safety liaison, says it's not a major concern that someone seeking a reward would tailor their testimony toward a conviction. There are other reasons a witness might lie, and judges and juries can decide whether a witness is being truthful, he says.
No California conviction has been overturned because of a reward claimant's untruthful testimony, the Governor's Office says. In some cases, claimants do not even testify because they have no knowledge of the crime, but merely helped authorities find a suspect. (No one actually involved in the crime can claim a reward.)
Sawyer says rewards can provide the last push for someone to come forward with information. "From a law enforcement perspective, it's just a wonderful thing to have, " said Sawyer, who spent more than two decades in the Highway Patrol and three terms as Merced County sheriff.
Local law enforcement loves reward programs, and it's easy to see why. The rewards multiply their efforts, bringing public attention to hard-to-crack cases. And the rewards come out of someone else's pocket -- the state's general fund -- especially important now when their budgets are tight.
Under the governor's program, a police chief or sheriff puts in a request declaring that investigators have pursued all leads, believe a reward would help and have the support of the victim's family. The vast majority of cases are murders, but there's a list of other crimes that are also eligible, including hijackings, prison escapes, setting wildfires that cause death or major property damage, or the burning or bombing of hospitals, libraries or places of worship.
Sacramento police chiefs have requested 12 rewards and two have been paid; Sacramento County sheriffs have asked for eight and two have been paid. The open cases include Celiflora Prado, 39, slain while watching television with her seven children in their south Sacramento home in March 2002; Marissa Flores-Krog, a 26-year-old Vallejo teacher shot and killed while driving on Highway 99 in downtown Sacramento in June 2004; and Emanuel Michel, 18, gunned down at a friend's party in Sacramento's Woodbine neighborhood in October 2008.
Some success stories
While the overall numbers -- only 20 rewards paid in 287 cases -- may seem surprisingly modest, officials point to some high-profile successes: the 1985 arrest of Richard Ramirez in the "Night Stalker" case, the 1991 Eric Leonard "Thrill Killer" slayings in Sacramento, the 1999 synagogue arsons in Sacramento and the 2002 kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.
Other cases were also solved without the reward being paid, though it's not known how many since the Governor's Office doesn't track cases that way. For instance, there was no reward claimed in the capture of Nikolay Soltys, who in August 2001 killed six members of his family in North Highlands and Rancho Cordova.
There is one area where the track record is better: The governor can offer as much as $100,000 for information on law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Of those 12 cases, half have been solved. One that hasn't been closed is the slaying of Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Jeffrey Mitchell, who was shot while on patrol on Oct. 27, 2006. With additional money from Sacramento County and developer and former congressman Doug Ose, the reward in that case is $225,000.
The fact there aren't more arrests just shows how cold some of these cases really are, as well as the intimidation of witnesses, particularly when violent gangs and drug cartels are involved, Sawyer says.
He says the next governor -- rather than pulling back on rewards -- should look at raising the maximum amount because it may no longer be enough of an incentive. The rewards, which never expire, were last raised from $10,000 to $50,000 in 1989.
A personal investment
Bob Withrow has a deeply personal stake in a reward.
In April 2006, his wife, Line, was walking to their east Sacramento home from the 39th Street light-rail station after shopping in Folsom. A stranger pulled up in a Honda and demanded her purse. Just as she was about to hand it over, he stabbed her. She was 67 and she loved to cook and host holiday parties.
Withrow says it was important to him when Schwarzenegger offered the $50,000 reward in his wife's case nearly four years ago. But after this long, he believes it's more likely the case will be broken through DNA evidence than through the reward.
"I don't want to get false hopes up, " he says.
Police believe the stabbing was the last of four similar attacks over three days. In the third, a drop of blood, found on a briefcase, wasn't from Line Withrow or the two people who found it. Police put the DNA profile into the national database.
"We're hoping and waiting for a match, " says Sgt. Bob McCloskey, the lead investigator. "This is the last and best evidence we have." McCloskey says the reward did not generate many calls.
Neither did the billboard on 16th Street advertising the reward in the Lai case. But with no known motive or witnesses, it was worth a try.
"Currently, we don't have any great leads, " says police Sgt. Kirk Campbell, the investigator supervising the case. "You always hope -- you hope that the reward will be enough."
So maybe that's what rewards are really about -- hope. The debate over effectiveness and policy is, in some ways, beside the point.
Rewards help keep us from forgetting victims. They force us to remember that a criminal is out there, going unpunished. They stave off the day when we give up believing -- and hoping -- that justice will be done.