2 slayings push toll in 1990 to 296, most since early 1970s

December 24, 1990|By David Simon

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun reporte incorrectly that 296 people had been murdered in Baltimore in 1990. In fact, the number of violent deaths officially classified as murders at that time was 294, according to the police.

The Sun regrets the error.

A pair of shootings early yesterday pushed Baltimore's 1990 murder count near the 300 mark -- a level of violence that the city has not encountered in almost two decades.

Yesterday's slayings -- one in an argument over a woman, the other in apparent retaliation for the theft of drugs -- were the 295th and 296th of the year.


The numbers confirm 1990 as the most violent year since Maryland's renowned shock-trauma system was organized in the early 1970s.

It was in 1971 and 1972 that the city posted its highest murder totals -- 323 and 330, respectively -- after which the emergency medical system became fully operational and the homicide rate fell dramatically, reaching a low of 171 in 1977.

But for the last three years, the city's murder rate has climbed steadily, dovetailing with a national trend that has produced record homicide totals in more than a dozen other U.S. cities this year.

Nationally, police generally attribute the increase to the burgeoning inner-city drug trade and the proliferation of firearms, particularly semiautomatic handguns. Locally, homicide detectives are saying pretty much the same thing.

"We've had 18 murders in the last two weeks," said Kevin Davis, a veteran homicide detective. "It's the guns and the drugs and the general lack of respect for human life that's keeping us busy this holiday season."

The city homicide unit has solved about 67 percent of this year's homicides.

Officially, the city unit's current clearance rate is 75.9 percent, taking into account the 23 murders from previous years that were solved in 1990 -- a statistical system permitted under federal crime reporting guidelines. The Baltimore rate is better than the national average of about 70 percent.

Police officials and city prosecutors acknowledge, however, that the increasing violence is straining the criminal-justice system by burdening investigators, clogging courtrooms and producing backlogs in the trace evidence, ballistics and fingerprint sections of the city crime laboratory.

As in past years, the 1990 murder toll has fallen disproportionately on young black men, who accounted for the great majority of both victims and suspects and for whom homicide has become the leading cause of death nationwide.

Almost 93 percent of the city's murder victims this year were black, 85 percent were male, and 58 percent were 29 or younger. Police records show that the first 74 homicide victims of 1990 were black.

Similarly, of 300 suspects currently identified in connection with the year's murders, more than 91 percent are black, 90 percent are male, and 58 percent are 25 or younger.

Drugs and arguments are cited by detectives as the most common motives, with drug-related homicides making up 40 percent to 50 percent of the total.

Although other cities such as Washington and Detroit have posted much higher homicide rates than Baltimore in recent years -- with Washington receiving attention as the nation's reigning murder capital -- an analysis of crime statistics shows that the chance of being seriously assaulted in Baltimore is approximately equal to that in cities with higher murder rates.

The difference in the murder rates apparently has been the state's emergency medical system, which is nationally renowned for its ability to get victims to trauma centers and save their lives.

This year, however, Baltimore's homicide count has reached a level unseen since the trauma system began. The increase is more remarkable considering that Baltimore's population has declined significantly since the early 1970s.

This year's murder total is more than 13 percent higher than last year's and follows smaller increases in 1989 and 1988. Three years ago, 226 people were murdered in Baltimore, 70 fewer than this year's 296, a figure that does not include 10 others who were victims of homicides in which the assailant was later determined to have acted in self-defense. Such cases are not included in the murder rate.

Yesterday's slayings were typical in every way:

In Northwest Baltimore, an argument on the street exploded into XTC violence and left a 25-year-old man dead from multiple gunshot wounds to the upper left back, left leg and right arm.

Steven Wilson of the 2500 block of Oakley Avenue was pronounced dead at the scene of the 12:05 a.m. shooting. Detectives said the victim was confronted by several men in the 5200 block of Elmer Avenue and then shot while trying to flee.

Investigators were not certain about the motive, but they said they had received information that the victim was blamed for the theft of drugs from several neighborhood stash houses and was shot in retaliation.

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