Murder, She Blogged
ALISON STEWART, host:
Ricardo Hernandez, 20, a young Latino man, was shot multiple times while standing in a relative's garage at about 7:40 p.m. last Thursday. He died at the scene.
Ronnie Burgess, 21, a young white man, was killed in a drive-by shooting at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday. This happened in a neighborhood called The Rock. Burgess was walking home. The suspects, a group in a car, cruised by and demanded, where you from? They shot him for his answer.
Ramon Godina, 39, a Latino man, was stabbed in the arm and chin at about 8 p.m. on Friday, December 7th, and died shortly after. Police believed the weapon was a samurai sword.
These are three of the most recent entries in a Los Angles Times blog called The Homicide Report. The blog aims to report on every death of a human being at a hand of another in Los Angles county. The tally since the blog started nearly a year ago: 805 people. And when I spoke to the woman tasked with writing each of these acts, reporter Jill Leovy, she estimated that count is under by as much as 20 percent.
So physically, your goal is to catalogue all of these homicides in L.A. county. Tell me philosophically what's the goal behind the blog.
Ms. JILL LEOVY (Crime Reporter, Los Angeles Times): The blog aims to show people the reality of the statistics, and the cleanest and most scientific way I can do it, which is to actually show each one and allow people to scroll through them. It is an attempt to get away from some - the long-standing traditions in crime journalism which, after being a crime journalist for several years, I sort of came to believe, we're creating a distorted picture and not really informing the public in the way that we ought to about what homicide is.
STEWART: What kind of practices are you talking about? Sort of the traditional practices you think (unintelligible)?
Ms. LEOVY: Well, I talk a lot on my blog about selectivity and coverage and the tendency to cover, as the rules of news reporting dictate, stories that are unusual. And the homicide problem consists largely of, in a way, very usual homicides.
And what happens when we cover the unusual ones is that this great elephant in the room, which is the highest homicide rates in the Western world, are completely disguised. People don't understand where the bulk of these homicides are happening and who - to whom they are happening.
STEWART: Where are they happening, and to whom are they happening?
Ms. LEOVY: Well, they're happening to, number one, black people and - in L.A. Number two, Latino people. I put it that way because the rates are highest among blacks and second highest per capita among Latinos.
They happen to men. They happen to adult men, primarily. Although, there is, you know, kind of a clog of late-teenage-years homicides that you see on the homicide report. They happen to people who are living on the margins.
They happen to people who, in many cases - and this is very key - are not likely to elicit a lot public sympathy, and that's another factor that really limits, I think, traditional homicide coverage because there's such pressure to cover the homicides that generate sympathy. And if you just cover those, again, you're missing the elephant in the room, and you're not seeing the problem.
STEWART: So, if the victim happens to be a member of a gang, that person would appear on your blog, regardless the fact they may have been involved in illegal activity themselves.
Ms. LEOVY: This might be a leap, but I would say a majority of the people on the blog have criminal histories of some kind. And yes, of course, many of them are gang members in some form - whatever that means. Most of my victims, if I say to the detectives, let's talk about the rap sheet, or do you have a mug shot? It's one of the best records I have of these people, because often they don't have other kinds of official records.
STEWART: You said two interesting things there. One, you called them, my victims.
Ms. LEOVY: Did I?
STEWART: Yeah, you did. Do you get involved in some level with these stories? Do you go to the funerals? Do you keep up with the families?
Ms. LEOVY: Well, I do do that. I mean, I think I use the term my victims simply because this is my job. My charge here is these people and these victims and cataloging them and recording them. But yes, I do - you know, I step back and do what I can - dispatches and short-feature stories about families and about the aftermath of these homicides.
STEWART: Do you attend funerals?
Ms. LEOVY: Yeah, I do. I don't, of course, go to every funeral, but I will go to funerals on occasion. I've done a number of them this year.
STEWART: Let's talk a little bit about the mechanics of how you get this done. If you call up the homicide unit in L.A. County and you say hey, it's Jill from the L.A. Times. I want to ask you about some stuff for my blog. Do you get a warm response? Or is there eye-rolling on the other side that you suspect?
Ms. LEOVY: They - at this point, or for the most part - extremely cooperative with this effort. And, in fact, I have to say there are number of people, not necessarily very visible people, working in the dark corners of the county bureaucracy and in law enforcement bureaucracy have helped me out with this simply because they themselves believe in it, and they've worked at these jobs three years and seen these invisible cases stack up.
But the greater problem for me is just the logistics of it. Homicides are not tracked in real time by any government agency I know of. There's an attempt to do that now. The federal government has filled out some grants to get somewhat more recent homicide reporting.
But in terms of what's happening this week in L.A. county, I have to make it up from scratch. Nobody is keeping track of it in a broad-scale way. I use the coroner records a lot, but there's no official record. They compile for me what they have as reported as homicide and send me some notes on it.
STEWART: Can you tell me the story of Diana Tomas?
Ms. LEOVY: Yeah. This was a young lady, a 14-year-old girl. She had been shot in the head. She was taken in to a hospital - as often happens. She had lived for quite a while. A few days after that, she was on life support.
And when the police found her, they assumed that she was a much older young woman. They thought that she was as old as 24 years old. They had her as a Jane Doe, as they say, on life support at the hospital, and they weren't able to determine who she was.
Her mother had reported her missing, but because she had reported a 14-year-old missing, they didn't immediately match it up. And it took a few days for them to figure out that their missing 14-year-old was the same young lady on life support with a bullet in her brain. The mother was brought to the hospital just before Diana died.
STEWART: One of the things about the entry about Diana is it has a tremendous amount of comments, responses from readers? Usually, who are the people who respond to your blog postings?
Ms. LEOVY: Most of the comments are grief and memorial comments. They have -now, as the year has gone on, I find that at the sixth-month point often after the homicide, when the homicide victim's birthday comes along, now as we approach the one-year mark for a lot of these homicides, that it generates a whole new slew of comments. People will go on and say, hey, I still miss you. I'm still thinking about you. This is what's happening with the family. It's harder now, this kind of thing.
STEWART: As you approach the one-year mark of this project, will that be it for you? Are you going to move on to another project? Will the blog continue to live on?
Ms. LEOVY: You know, we're trying to figure out what to do. I have just recently been given an apprentice in the newsroom, who I think I'm going to train to do it at least in some modified form. I think our goal is to at least say the names of the victims in a list every week. And as for me, you know, I think that I'm going to continue to write about homicide in some form. I try to write about it - in many different ways, the Homicide Report is just one of my latest experiments with this. And there are other things I want to try. So…
STEWART: What piece of advice are you going to give this apprentice that you wish somebody somewhere had clued you into before you started this?
Ms. LEOVY: Don't get behind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LEOVY: Don't ever get behind, because you lose control of it.
STEWART: And then you feel responsible, I would think, yeah?
Ms. LEOVY: Oh, so responsible. I just - I have a - you know, I have a lot of family members. I just had a family member e-mail me, and I had said on the post more information to come. This is from a 40-year-old black man killed in Compton, I think. And she wrote me a very legitimate email saying, you know, four months ago, you said more information to come, and I haven't seen any more information on my loved one, and what are you doing about it? And it's, you know, her name and that homicide is on the list in front of me with a about 150 others now. So it becomes very overwhelming.
STEWART: Jill Leovy is a reporter who writes the blog The Homicide Report for the Los Angeles Times. Hey, Jill, thank you for your time.
Ms. LEOVY: Thank you so much.
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