"Remorse": Two children of the Chicago projects have made a remarkable documentary on the life and death of 5-year-old Eric Morse, killed for refusing to steal candy. Their work will be broadcast tomorrow on NPR.


March 20, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - The only memorial for 5-year-old Eric Morse at the Ida B. Wells housing project is the square of plywood nailed over the 14th-floor window from which he was thrown to his death.

"At the top, see that brown wood, that's where he dropped from," says LeAlan Jones, who is 16 and lives two blocks away.

"There's a little patch of dirt where he hit," says 17-year-old Lloyd Newman, LeAlan's best friend.

LeAlan knocks on a table.

"Dirt like this," he says. "Hard dirt."

"Fourteen stories," Lloyd says. "That's high."

Eric Morse, a bright, smiling, energetic boy who loved to do back flips and joke with his mother, was dropped to his death Oct. 13, 1994, because he wouldn't help steal candy from a supermarket. His killers were 10 and 11.

The nation flinched. President Clinton expressed outrage. Eric's death became a symbol of a strange, new violence people saw infecting the country's children. At Ida B. Wells, LeAlan and Lloyd saw kids from their neighborhood in terrible trouble.

They investigated Eric's death for National Public Radio, which will air their documentary at 4 p.m. tomorrow, during the first hour of the news show "All Things Considered." The report, "Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse," is an elegy for Eric. It will be rebroadcast at 6 p.m.

Eric has no marker in the bleak Ida B. Wells complex. Ida B, as they call the projects here, doesn't seem to want to remember him. Ida B lives life in the present at the daily exchange rate. The future is now. The past indistinct.

"Nothing's left," Lloyd says. He lives in an old and battered Ida B duplex. "No symbols. Nothing. It's not forgotten in their families. But it's forgotten in the community."

"It's something that happened in the past," says LeAlan. "The past. The day after it happened was the past.

"It's a stoicism, like just taking pain," he says. "Like the Greeks had stoicism so pain wouldn't affect them. It's like that around here. You done stoicize yourself so it don't harm you anymore."

Three years ago, at 13 and 14, LeAlan and Lloyd made their first documentary on their own lives and their neighborhood. Broadcast on NPR in June 1993, "Ghetto Life 101" won a shelf full of awards from the Sigma Delta Chi, to the Livingston, to the Prix Italia, Europe's most prestigious broadcasting prize. "Remorse" speaks with the same authentic voice that marked the first documentary as unique.

"I wouldn't say I was an expert at reporting yet," LeAlan says. "But on this story I'm probably an expert, because I've done other things other reporters didn't do, such as interviewing Mrs. Morse [Eric's mother] and family members of the kids who did it. And on living in this community, I'm an expert."

Ellen Weiss, executive producer of "All Things Considered," calls "Remorse" a powerful piece of journalism. "You just don't hear that voice talking about something that big. You hear officials. You don't hear young black men."

LeAlan is truly articulate, a smart, savvy junior who makes A's and B's at nearby Martin Luther King High School. Although he's not a big kid, he's captain of the football team, a strong safety who made 14 tackles in Lloyd and LeAlan on "Remorse."

Once again, he wanted to create a vehicle for their voice on radio.

"I'd suggest questions," he says. "And they'd throw them out."

They produced nearly 60 hours of tape.

"I edited it in collaboration with the boys through 10 or 11 drafts," Mr. Isay says. "We batted it back and forth for the final tape."

He got Frank Morgan, the fine jazz saxophonist whose life is a model of redemption, to write and play the score for "Remorse."

LeAlan and Lloyd can expect to make $8,000 to $10,000 each from the project, Mr. Isay says. (They made perhaps $3,000 from "Ghetto Life 101.") And there may be a movie deal.

"We split all profits three ways," Mr. Isay says.

LeAlan and Lloyd have gotten a modest amount of celebrity in the 'hood, but mostly from newspaper stories and television interviews about their NPR shows. LeAlan has been on the "Geraldo" show twice. Few people around Ida B hear NPR.

"They listen to rap," Lloyd says.

The boys now meet a certain amount of envy and suspicion.

"I like that kind of suspicions of the kids," LeAlan says. "I got close to 30 pairs of gym shoes. That's probably as much or more than any drug dealer back there. I probably got almost everything a drug dealer has, and yet I didn't go that route that the drug dealer did to get it.

"The kids see me with the same thing that the drug dealer has and they see me right out there on the corner and not doing bad things and that might put them on the right track. Almost just having what the drug dealer has."

Lloyd contents himself with about 10 pairs: "I wait till they wear down then buy some more."

Packing a recorder

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