Question is how to stopbreeding the killers

August 18, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

The women are wailing -- hugging each other and calling on Jesus. The men maintain a grim silence. They fold their arms across their chests. Their eyes are wet with tears.

And in the midst of it all stands the 23-year-old man, confessing to murder on the evening news. He has been crying too.

"Did you shoot that young man?" asks Ron Matz, reporter for WJZ-TV.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because it looked like he had a gun in his car and everyone kept saying, 'Shoot him,' 'Shoot him,' and I got scared and just shot him." The young man says this with a quivering voice, like a kid trying to explain how he broke the living room lamp. Tears glisten on his cheeks.

The victim was Igor Berenshteyn, a 23-year-old Russian immigrant who was shot to death Aug. 10 during an attempted robbery. Mr. Berenshteyn had come to the United States with his family 18 months ago and was working at a pizza delivery shop on Park Heights Avenue. He was killed by three men on his first night as a delivery man.

On screen, the 23-year-old man continues mournfully, "I just told him to give me the money and he wouldn't give it to me and I said, 'Man . . . ' like I was warning him and he didn't give me nothing . . . and somebody in back of me kept saying, 'Shoot him,' 'Shoot him,' and I was scared or something and when I was doing it, the gun said, 'Bop, Bop,' and I just ran."

The day after the shooting, police issued a warrant charging Samuel Small, 17, and Joseph Benjamin, 23, with first-degree murder and attempted robbery. A third suspect is still at large. Saturday, Mr. Small and Mr. Benjamin met with a WJZ-TV news crew at the Northwest Baltimore home of Mr. Small's parents. vTC Benjamin spoke about the incident on camera before police arrived. His statement was aired during the station's 6:30 p.m. newscast and again at 11 p.m.

Both men have been charged with Mr. Berenshteyn's murder and Tuesday were ordered held without bail. A trial has been set for Sept. 13. And, of course both Mr. Small and Mr. Benjamin are presumed innocent until they are tried, regardless of their televised surrender.

But Mr. Berenshteyn's mother, Faina Vaynerman, was understandably bitter. "I saw how cried the mother," she told WJZ-TV on Saturday, as she struggled with both her emotions and her English. "I understand, I want to understand her. But she growed up [raised] a killer. And I think not a lot of people can give sympathy to her."

Ms. Vaynerman probably is right when she says most people will reserve their sympathy for the victim, rather than the suspects. The public is angry and frustrated by the continued violence and politicians are climbing aboard the cage-'em-and-fry-'em bandwagon. For instance, Republican gubernatorial candidate Helen Delich Bentley vowed Tuesday to push for harsher penalties for convicted felons, including expansion of the death penalty. Her rivals from both political parties seem to be trying to outdo each other as relentless crime-fighters.

But I am struck by the senselessness of so much of the violence, by the apparent inability of today's killers to comprehend before they kill the full effect of murder. We see it repeatedly when young men are brought to trial: The defendants seem shocked to learn that their act not only destroyed the life of the victim and his family, but it also devastated the killer's loved ones as well; shocked and saddened their own neighbors. You want to grab the young men by the throat and shout in their faces: "Stupid! It is too late to feel sorry now, stupid!"

Murder today appears to lack an underpinning rationale to which we can appeal. They are thoughtless, stupid, insane acts; as though the killers operate in some kind of warped vacuum, totally divorced from the real world. We can get tough after the fact. But how can we prevent acts of such profound ignorance?

Ms. Vaynerman -- barely in this country for 18 months and already victimized -- pronounced sentence on our whole society: "You growed up a killer," she said.

The question is, why are we breeding such killers? And how can we stop?

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