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February 5, 2007 - New York Times (NY)

In New Orleans, Dysfunction Fuels Cycle Of Killing

By Adam Nossiter and Christopher Drew

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

NEW ORLEANS -- When the body was brought out, the two little boys did not stop chewing their sticky blue candy or swigging from their pop bottles. The 18-year-old mother wheeling her baby came to watch, and the teenager with the spiky hair and the bulky duffle coat was laughing up on the worn stoop.

Only the cries of Linda Holmes -- "Oh, Lord, have mercy on me, Jesus, oh my baby!" she said, over and over -- were a tip-off that this was her teenage son Ronald the man in the lab coat was laboring to pull out of the empty apartment in the Iberville housing project.

It was another death in New Orleans -- violent, casual, probably drug related and, by the time the sobbing and the laughter had faded, covered over in the silence that is the only resolution of many such killings here. The gurney holding Ronald was pushed into the coroner's van, the gawkers stepped back from their balconies and the police furled their yellow tape. "It's messed up around here," said the mother with the stroller, Ariane Ellis.

There has been no arrest.

There were 161 homicides in this city last year, and there have been 18 so far this year, making New Orleans by most measures the nation's per capita murder capital, given its sharply reduced population. Many of the victims and the suspects are teenagers. About two-thirds of the deaths have gone unsolved: the killers, in many cases, continue to walk the streets and are likely to kill again, the police say.

Other cities have plenty of murders. But only in New Orleans has there been the uniquely poisoned set of circumstances that has led to this city's position at the top of the homicide charts. Every phase of the killing cycle here unfolds under the dark star of dysfunction: the murderers' brutalized childhoods, the often ineffectual police intervention, a dulled community response, and a tense relationship between the police and prosecutors that lets many cases slip through the cracks.

Hurricane Katrina's devastation loosened the fragile social restraints even further, making the city perhaps more dangerous than ever.

The storm also pushed a teetering criminal justice system over the edge. The evidence in hundreds of criminal cases was lost, and the flood destroyed the police crime lab, which has not been rebuilt. Often, drugs cannot be tested at other locations before the deadline for bringing charges. Yet the police are trying to stop the violence by arresting more drug users and street dealers, many of whom are quickly released, spinning the jail door faster than ever and fueling the carnage.

In the Central City neighborhood last June, five teenagers in a sport utility vehicle were killed in a drug feud. The police said the 19-year-old suspect had been arrested 11 times in the previous 30 months. But he had been acquitted on an attempted murder charge, the district attorney's office had dropped some of the other charges for lack of evidence, and he was out on bail on drug and gun charges at the time of the killings.

Last year, about 3,100 people who were arrested, mostly for drug offenses, were released from jail or their bail obligation when the deadlines passed for charges to be filed, records show. That was nearly three times the rate before the storm. More than 500 others were released in January alone, including one in a murder case and two arrested for attempted murder.

In some neighborhoods, people refer to "misdemeanor murders," or "60-day murders," the length of time suspects can be held without charges. The police superintendent, Warren J. Riley, often blames prosecutors for refusing other cases and the courts for letting violent suspects out on bail. Though Mr. Riley declined to be interviewed for this article, he recently told Gambit Weekly, a local newspaper, that he was tired of having to re-arrest the same people who had been let out of jail.

"We can't be as successful fighting crime as we would like to be until the rest of the criminal justice system works like it's supposed to work," Mr. Riley told the newspaper. "We have to keep hard-core felons in jail."

But the district attorney, Eddie Jordan, and several judges say that shoddy police work, and a general mistrust of officers by witnesses and jurors, doom many cases. Witnesses also fear retaliation on the street.

"It's an insurmountable problem," Mr. Jordan said. "By the time the investigative report is presented to our office, a good number of witnesses are no longer available or have gotten afraid to testify. That's the biggest problem in murder cases."

And even as city and federal officials announce new anticrime measures, doubts persist.

Terry Q. Alarcon, a longtime criminal court judge, said, "The criminal justice system has always had two major problems: a lack of funding and a lack of cooperation."

A Legacy Of Mistrust

The Police Department's history of brutality and its emphasis on minor arrests have fed the mistrust and alienated many people who might be witnesses. Prosecutors and judges have criticized police officers as failing to investigate cases sufficiently, taking too long to write arrest reports and ducking subpoenas to appear in court.

As a result, the district attorney's office has typically been able to go forward with only half to two-thirds of the cases the police have brought. With most assistant district attorneys earning only $38,000 a year, the turnover in Mr. Jordan's office is high, and the experience level is low. Several studies by the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local nonprofit group, show that as few as 12 percent of homicide arrests end in jail sentences.

Mr. Jordan said he had not been to the Police Department's weekly crime statistic meetings for three years, ever since an argument had broken out at one of them over whether he was prosecuting enough cases.

More recently, he and Superintendent Riley have pledged to work more closely together. But tensions shot up again after a grand jury, at Mr. Jordan's direction, indicted several police officers on first-degree murder charges stemming from the shooting of a retarded man in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina.

City officials recently announced a host of actions, including the mounting of more cameras in crime-ridden areas and the increasing of foot patrols to rebuild community trust. The city is raising pay levels to attract more police officers and better prosecutors, including several who will focus on convicting the most violent repeat offenders. (In a few months, most prosecutors will be earning $50,000.)

Federal authorities have put up $5 million for a new crime lab, and they are sending more prosecutors and undercover drug agents to help.

But even in criminal justice circles, there is a recognition that arrests and convictions alone will not break the killing cycle.

"You can put a cop on every corner, and you will not stop the murders," said Eric E. Malveau, who has worked as a prosecutor and a public defender. "As long as you have a large population that is uneducated and has no job and no hope, what else is there to do but sell drugs? Until you fix that, it's hard to see the problems getting much better."

'Killing Is In'

The killing is integrated deep into the community. Residents say the routine nature of the violence stifles a sense of outrage, for reasons of physical and mental self-preservation.

"Last week I buried one on Tuesday, and the one who killed him was buried on Wednesday," said the Rev. John C. Raphael Jr., a burly former policeman turned minister who has campaigned against the violence here. "And I buried another one on Friday. And the one I buried Friday, somebody shot part of the family later that night."

Mr. Raphael posts signs on telephone poles that say "Enough!" at murder scenes; often, neighbors are reluctant to let him do so.

The police blame drugs -- drug debts, or drug deals gone bad, or grabs for drugs, mostly crack. Many of the drug gangs dispersed after the hurricane and have since regrouped, ending the brief lull with a greater intensity of infighting now concentrated in fewer neighborhoods.

On the street, a 10- or 12-year old can get up to $30 for being a bicycle lookout, and teenagers can get up to $1,000 for helping to move drug stashes.

But apart from the drug trade, those living with the culture of violence say that often all that is needed to set off a deadly shooting is a misdirected look, an epithet or a turn down the wrong block into an alien neighborhood.

"They killing each other on, whatever," said Terrol Wilson, 40, a lifelong Central City resident and a former convict who is now a truck driver and a member of the New Hope Baptist Church. "People right now, they're not scared to kill now. That's how they rockin' right now. Killing is in."

Mr. Wilson served 15 years in prison for burglary and drug-possession convictions, beginning at age 15. He says he has seen people shot in the street in New Orleans since he was a child, and he has known people who have pulled the trigger. But now, he says, the killings are coming faster, and residents have little interest in helping investigators.

Miming an aggressive look, Mr. Wilson suggested that that posture alone might be considered a pretext for killing on the rough blocks of Central City. He described how successive killings became easier, once the first was accomplished, for some of the teenagers with guns.

"I'm not worrying about my shooting my second person, because I'm bucked up right now," Mr. Wilson said. "It's like, that's what's up. For some of them, it doesn't matter -- my second killing, my third killing."

The killings have spilled into the city's suburbs, which last year recorded 78 homicides, the highest tally in more than two decades. The police said evacuees from Hurricane Katrina had been involved in many of them.

"They get their first hit, it's like, they can do anything," Mr. Wilson said. "It's like shooting marbles for them."

There was Ivory Harris, for instance, known as B-Stupid in Central City, twice arrested for murder before the hurricane and twice let go. "A quiet little boy," said Mr. Wilson, who had grown up with the boy's mother.

B-Stupid logged his first arrest on murder charges at 16, for a killing in the C. J. Peete housing project.

"He was trying to gain respect on the street," another Central City acquaintance, Lyle Mouton, said. The police re-arrested Mr. Harris, now 20, in March on new murder charges.

A Wall Of Reserve

Arrest hardly means conviction, however. And in this city, with its codes of neighborhood silence, both are the exception.

At the murder scene in the derelict Iberville housing project, where Ronald Holmes was pulled out of the apartment, several people told a reporter they had seen a young man run across the courtyard, then heard a shot. But as the police were doing their work, going in and out of the abandoned apartment -- officers said they had found drugs inside -- the residents, several dozen at least, hung back.

A wall of reserve separated them from the police: nobody could be seen offering up evidence. The Iberville tenants were as oblivious to the men in uniform as they were to the exhortations of a preacher droning steadily through a microphone at the back of the courtyard.

"Without witness testimony, we've got nothing," Deputy Chief Anthony Cannatella, a senior police official on the scene, observed pointedly.

Three teenage girls sat on a stoop, watching the detectives. "They kill people every day back here," said one of them, a half-smile playing on her face. She ran off when asked her name. In an apartment adjacent to where Mr. Holmes had been shot, another young woman ducked inside rather than give her name.

Most of the violence involves black men killing other black men. Out of the 161 homicide victims last year, 131 were black men. Most of the suspects were also black men.

When the pattern of black-on-black violence is occasionally broken, white fear and outrage are redoubled. This happened earlier this month after the killing of a white filmmaker, when thousands of people marched on City Hall to demand change, a majority of them whites.

The small showing of black marchers saddened Mr. Raphael, the minister. In the 2006 murders, he said, "99 percent of them were black-on-black, and we did not march. As a community, we could not bring ourselves to respond to that."

In New Orleans, Mr. Wilson said, "the motto is, beef or barbecue." If you "beef" -- go to the police -- then do not expect to be enjoying barbecue anytime soon.

Distrust of the police and fear of the gunmen make the motto nearly beside the point. Few people beef.

Annie Randolph's daughter and nephew have both been lost to the violence. Nobody was arrested, said Ms. Randolph, a resident of Central City. She called the police once, but warily. "I said, 'Don't come to my door.' Because if they come to my door, whoever did the killing is going to see it."

Bessie Minor's son and grandson have both been killed; the police and the prosecutors showed minimal concern, she said.

"In that time, they didn't really worry about who did the killing," said Ms. Minor, who is also a resident of Central City.

In this view, the police are part of the problem, not the solution -- "an occupying force," Mr. Raphael said. Meanwhile, people in his neighborhood and elsewhere in the city are "living in tremendous fear," he said.

"I mean, most of these murders are in front of people," Mr. Raphael said. "When some of these murders happen, it's really a disrespectful thing to the entire community. You have children out there, older people, and this person will come into the community and shoot an AK-47.

"That's saying to the community, 'I don't care nothing about y'all, you better not say nothing about it,' " he said. "In broad daylight. To me, it's demeaning to black men."

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