ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Three hundred seventeen people were murdered last year in Philadelphia - the most the city has seen in five years. The public did not know most of those victims' names. The story of their lives weren't told. Now, a new project is attempting to tell the story of every homicide victim in the city. Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Trina Singleton picked up the paper the day after her son was murdered in southwest Philadelphia. The headline read "Violent Day In Philly: 10 People Shot, Three Of Them Fatally." What the article didn't mention was that one of those three was Singleton's 24-year-old son, Darryl.
TRINA SINGLETON: Darryl was very friendly. He had a lot of personality. He liked helping people.
ALLYN: He was skinny. He had a trim goatee. He wore Malcolm X-style glasses. And at the time of his death, he was in school studying to be an EMT.
SINGLETON: He didn't have a criminal background. He wasn't a troublemaker.
ALLYN: Singleton wished the public could have known this, but instead, her son, the eldest of three, was just one victim in what a local news article described as, quote, "a day of mayhem." Police aren't sure what provoked Darryl Singleton's shooting death, but he was found in the alleyway behind his childhood home after he was hanging out with friends there. Philadelphia lawyer Cletus Lyman is transforming street mayhem and murder statistics into real stories. He's launched a new nonprofit website called Philadelphia Obituary Project.
CLETUS LYMAN: I remember having discussions occasionally when I'd meet journalists, and I'd complain about this problem. What don't you follow up on this? And I guess it's a problem of space and, yeah, they would say, yes. We just don't have time to do this.
ALLYN: Families in Philadelphia can pay to have a lost loved one's obituary appear in a local newspaper, and if someone notable dies, many news outlets will write their own obituaries. Lyman wants every murder victim, regardless of status, to be properly memorialized. Similar efforts to chronicle the lives of those lost to violence are underway in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Trenton, N.J. Lyman says the hundreds murdered every year in Philadelphia deserve to be more than a data point.
LYMAN: That's all most of these people were as far as what information you could get publicly. They were dots on a map.
ALLYN: Trina Singleton says working with a writer from the Obituary Project has been therapeutic.
SINGLETON: It does help the family with the healing and grieving process. We are able to reflect on the good parts of that person and not just what happened to them.
ALLYN: Albert Stumm oversees the project's stories. He's a former Philadelphia Daily News editor.
ALBERT STUMM: Every single person had hopes and dreams. They had people who loved them. They had something in their lives that made them special, and those are the things that we are trying to focus on.
ALLYN: Stumm says news reports can give the impression a victim is partially to blame by emphasizing what led to a killing. He says the Obituary Project is different.
STUMM: Not be saying, hey, yeah, well, sounds like a nice, guy but what did he do to get himself in that position?
ALLYN: At the Philadelphia Police Department Headquarters, Commissioner Richard Ross says maybe humanizing the grim statistics will encourage more witnesses to step forward to help solve murders.
RICHARD ROSS: We've all got to play a role in stemming the tide of this violence.
ALLYN: It's a message Trina's Singleton took to heart raising her son. She'd keep a close eye on his circle of friends, had him live with his grandparents out of state to get him out of the neighborhood during the summer and supported his dream of becoming an emergency responder before he was killed.
SINGLETON: We tried hard. And for it to happen anyway is kind of like, well, you try to do the right thing, you know, and then it happens anyway.
ALLYN: Singleton has another cause, too - searching for the person who fatally shot her son. Sixteen months have passed since he was killed. Police have not made any arrests in connection with the case. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.
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