Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Homicide Watch Interview

On Monday, we started our interview with Laura Amico, the founder of Homicide Watch in Washington, D.C.

Laura was gracious enough to answer some questions concerning how her site started and what she sees it becoming.  I have read many of the articles on the site and it is extremely comprehensive. They track each case from beginning to end.

It is not only a useful tool for the public, but detectives and attorneys use it as well. In many cases, detectives and officers do not know what happens to a case once an arrest is made.  They never discover the outcome. The site allows everyone to follow any case they are interested in.  Now officers and the general public have a way to track a case of interest.

Something else I found particularly interesting: D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) closed 94% of homicide cases last year. That figure seems tremendous, but things are not always what they seem. Say there were 100 murders last year and only 75 of those 100 were solved by arrest. If MPD solves 19 more cold case murders from prior years last year they add that into their total. So instead of a 75% closure rate, it becomes a 94% closure rate when you add the 19 closed cases. I was not aware this happened and will now find out the methods used to calculate the closure rate in my jurisdiction.

I'll let Laura tell you in her own words:

Prosecutor's Discretion: How does Homicide Watch get its funding?

Laura Amico: The platform that I work on is custom built by my husband, who is a journalist and web developer. We license the software and provide editorial support to newsrooms across the United States; DC is our flagship site. Our goal is to have a network of Homicide Watch sites across the nation. We're looking forward to announcing our first expansion site very soon.

Pros. Dis.: What has the community response been? Has there been any negative response?

L.A.: The community reaction has been great. It turns out that the need I felt for information about this crimes was truly felt District wide. Just in the past two days, we've had a girlfriend of a victim, the father of a defendant, and a former juror all commenting on the site... sharing their thoughts. It's really gratifying to have created a place where all those parties feel comfortable opening up. I hear frequently from detectives who say they use the site to stay up-to-date on their cases as they move through the legal system. And prosecutors tell me they use the site to stay up to date on their colleagues cases. The only negative response I've heard has been a concern for witness safety, which I take very seriously. The concern is not about the reporting, but the posting of public documents, like charging documents. I redact information from these documents very carefully before making them available on Homicide Watch. But I've also heard from detectives who say that they are now writing their warrants and whatnot more carefully because they know that they will be made public. I think ultimately that this is really positive... it's frightening to me that witness safety could have been jeopardized because detectives assumed that public documents weren't really public because it took effort to get them.

Pros. Dis.: Do you view your site as an aid to law enforcement, a way to keep law enforcement accountable, or a tool for the public to view information?

L.A.: Yes, all of the above. I think they are all interconnected. I've heard that cases have been solved because people have seen information on Homicide Watch, realized that they knew something, and contacted police. I don't publish specifically for people who might know something about a crime, I publish primarily for people like myself who just want to know what's going on, but I realize that potential witnesses are in my readership. It is also a way to hold law enforcement accountable. Recently, MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said at a news conference that DC has a 94 percent homicide case closure this year. That fact was picked up by nearly every news organization, and while it's technically correct, it really should be explained... it's not that 94 percent of homicides that occurred this year were closed. There's some complicated math involved. So I wrote a brief post about that. It's both accountability and explaining, helping to get everyone on the same page so that when we talk about homicide, we're all talking about the same thing.

Pros. Dis.: Where do you get your information for your articles? Do you ever interview witnesses?

L.A.: Most of my information comes from court and law enforcement sources and families and friends of victims and suspects. I rarely interview witnesses and I do not seek witnesses out for interviews. Occasionally I'll get a comment from someone who appears to be a witness. I try to get that person in touch with law enforcement. I'm not particularly interested in investigating cases. I see the site instead as channel between various parties.

Pros. Dis.: Tell us about the most memorable case.

L.A.: Let me send you to this page about Kwan Kearney. This was the first trial I covered with Homicide Watch and the defendant is pending trial in another murder case. Just before standing trial in the first one, his brother was killed. As if that weren't enough, his co-defendant took a plea deal and testified against him. On the witness stand, the co-defendant sang out a rap song that he said the two of them sang after shooting the teenage victim dead. Another story that I think about often is the sentencing of Deon Thornton. He pleaded guilty to killing his brother, and the family supported him. His uncle told the judge at sentencing: “A sentence given to Deon is a sentence given to us all. The crime is very serious and we accept responsibility as a family. How did we permit something like this to happen? Deon, we love you and we love Derrick.” The humanity of that statement, the drama and trauma and love embedded in every word, has stayed with me.

Thank you Laura.  We look forward to hearing much more from Laura and watching Homicide Watch grow.  Perhaps in a city near you?

1 comment:

  1. Powerful stuff. As I said, I wish we had one of these in Philadelphia. Perhaps someday we will!