SO, IN LESS than eight hours, on one horrific day in the life of Fear City, five people met their ends at the hands of those wielding firearms.
The carnage started around 6 a.m. Thursday, which isn't even the crack of dawn in these parts at this time of the year. A man and woman were found inside a house. Both were shot in the head. Less than two hours later, another woman was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head.
It wasn't even noon when police went to the 2100 block of Aiken St. and found 56-year-old Willie Covington dead of a gunshot wound to the back. Shortly before 2 p.m., a woman was found with a fatal gunshot wound to the head in the 5700 block of Chinquapin Parkway.
The first four victims were killed in East Baltimore, the last in Northeast Baltimore. But the bottom line is that all five died in Fear City, where criminals who should be in prison roam the streets and kill, it seems, for the sheer hell of it.
That assertion goes against the assessment of acting police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, who, along with many others, has my utmost respect. But I'm not with him in his claim that the upsurge in Baltimore homicides - 26 so far this year - is the result of the department's turning up the heat on drug dealers, which forces them to be more aggressive and murderous in collecting drug debts.
About the time police found Covington, the choir at Morningstar Baptist Church was singing a hymn at the funeral of Nathan Gulliver, my cousin who was killed with two others in a recovery house Jan. 10. The murderer had come to the house looking to be paid for a drug debt, and killed the guy who owed him the money, my cousin and one other.
That was after my cousin went to a bank machine and got the money. So the drug debt wasn't an issue. The murderer killed three people and tried to kill a fourth for the sheer hell of it. Because he could. Because he felt like it.
And in Fear City, why wouldn't he feel like it? This is the town that has a gaggle of city and state legislators who've made their opposition to the death penalty a matter of record. This is a town where the state's attorney's office rarely, if ever, asks for the death penalty. If Adolf Eichmann were on trial for his monstrous crimes in Baltimore, he couldn't even get the death penalty here.
So don't expect an upsurge in requests for the death penalty as a strategy in coping with Baltimore's murderers. After all, Fear City is run by a political party that believes while the death penalty isn't a deterrent, the much lighter penalties imposed for hate crimes are. There may be (to paraphrase John Kennedy Toole in his A Confederacy of Dunces) no way to get through to minds that think this way, but I'll give it another shot. Here are a few things we can do that might stanch the bloodletting in Fear City.
1. Abandon the notion that unlicensed halfway houses kill people.
That's been the position of Fear City officials to the shootings at the recovery house Jan. 10. To paraphrase the National Rifle Association: Halfway houses don't kill people. People kill people.
2. Focus the attention on how many homicide suspects have prior records and investigate why they aren't in prison.
Nine days ago police arrested a suspect in the recovery house shootings. I have no idea if he's the guy who did it or not, which is why you're not even reading his name in this column. I'm forced, despite personal feelings, to give him the same presumption of innocence everybody else gets. But police said his criminal record includes 10 prior arrests, some for gun possession, and he was on probation the night the triple murder occurred.
So, the events at the recovery house aside, isn't the question how can a guy who gets arrested 10 times be on probation and not in prison?
3. Increase the penalties for intimidating witnesses.
State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy's office has already started the process. Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said Jessamy has proposed a bill supported by Gov. Robert Ehrlich and many delegates and senators that would increase the penalty for witness intimidation, which is the main obstacle in getting some murderers even convicted, much less given a death sentence.
The penalty now stands at five years. The new law would increase it to 20.
I was thinking more along the lines of 30 years and letting them haggle their way down to 29. But at least it's a start. In time Fear City may come to be the town where murderers, drug dealers and hood rats fear police and prosecutors once again.