Reporting deaths of 2 teens caught in tide of violence

Public Editor

November 19, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Recent stories about two victims of Baltimore's continuing murder epidemic reminded readers of the pervasive pain of violent death in the city. Some officials have argued that despite Baltimore's high per-capita murder rate, the city is relatively safe for those who don't sell or use drugs. And there is also a tendency to assume that a murdered black youth had been involved in illegal activity.

But Nov. 11, services were held for two innocent young black people killed by strangers for no apparent reason. Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Gus Sentementes skillfully told the stories of two lives cut short and underlined the pain that accompanied the loss of Jamelle Carter and Nicole "Nikki" Edmonds - good kids caught by the tide of violence that too often engulfs this city's teenagers.

One paragraph in a short article in The Sun's Oct. 2 edition described how the 18-year-old Carter was shot in the head while talking to friends on the street in the Park Heights section of the city. After Carter was wounded, the gunman reportedly continued to shoot at the victim's friends before fleeing. "Carter was pronounced dead at the scene," the article said.

On Nov. 10, Bykowicz, who co-wrote the Oct. 2 article, received a detailed e-mail from Carter's aunt, Maia Banks-Sheetz. The e-mail noted that the original article had misspelled her nephew's name as "Jemel" (it was based on information from a police spokesman) and went on to document Jamelle Carter's exemplary life.

Banks-Sheetz wrote: "As a writer for the Metro section, you may feel it necessary to remain somewhat detached from the subjects of stories such as these. It is my desire after reading this e-mail that Jamelle will become in your mind a human being with a soul. ... I hope Jamelle will not be just another black teen killed ... not just another statistic in your newspaper." She ended by noting that his former high school was retiring his football jersey later that day and that a memorial service was planned for Nov. 11 on what would have been his 19th birthday.

The continuing flood of murders can sometimes overwhelm the newspaper's capacity to illuminate how it affects those involved. But the e-mail penetrated a protective shield that sometimes exists in the newsroom and laid bare how violence can diminish survivors' hopes for a better future.

Within minutes of receiving the e-mail, Bykowicz made the decision to cover the Jamelle Carter memorial events and called Banks-Sheetz to get more details. Bykowicz's article and Chiaki Kawajiri's photos, "Birthday vigil for a victim," were prominently played on The Sun's Nov. 12 Maryland section.

Bykowicz said later: "It is so important when a family reaches out to us to provide the kinds of details never found in police reports. Jamelle's story is the kind that needs to be told. It serves as a reality check for all of us about what is happening out there."

Banks-Sheetz said of the story. "Thank you Julie. ... You've helped many of us move forward in the healing process and you reminded the community that not everyone who dies by the sword lived by it."

In the same edition, police reporter Sentementes covered the funeral of Nikki Edmonds, 17, who was stabbed to death after midnight on Nov. 7 while walking home from the light rail stop on West North Avenue with her younger brother Marcus. Three men and a woman jumped the siblings, who were returning home from their fast-food jobs in Linthicum. Marcus was not injured but was held down by his assailants as his sister died. The suspects, likely teenagers themselves, are still at large.

The initial story of Edmonds' killing broke over the Election Day news cycle and the article was played on the Maryland section front. Even though it was overwhelmed by big political news, the article was well read and many readers expressed shock and sorrow.

As Sentementes reported, Edmonds had a nurturing family who had pulled her out of a troubled city high school to home-school her. She was active in her church and was loved by her family and friends. She wanted to work - even though the best option was a job at a Wendy's restaurant in Baltimore County that required an hourlong commute each way.

In his Nov. 12 article, Sentementes wrote: "Edmonds' life and death typified the struggles of many inner-city youths, working against troubled schools, inadequate work opportunities and high crime."

A number of readers responded.

"The murder of Nicole Edmonds is a true tragedy," said Kirk Godwin. "We need The Sun to keep this story alive and keep the pressure on until the crime is solved."

Said Sentementes: "Stories of young people killing each other on city streets have abounded this year. People should feel outraged."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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