Two men were gunned down in an ambush Sunday night, their four killers stepping out of the woods to shoot them with a high-powered assault rifle at a Northeast Baltimore apartment complex. Three more victims were found fatally shot in the streets of East, West and Northwest Baltimore.
The five homicides - an especially deadly weekend even by Baltimore standards - brought the toll for the year to 174. That is up significantly from 147 at the same time a year ago, and according to the statistical measure the FBI uses - homicides per 100,000 residents - comparable to 1993, the city's worst annual total.
That year, Baltimore had about 724,000 people, and 353 homicides - about 49 per 100,000. This year, in a city where the population has dipped to about 635,000, Baltimore is on pace for 51 homicides per 100,000, according to figures calculated by The Sun.
David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that when Baltimore and other cities saw crime surge in the early 1990s, the emerging crack cocaine epidemic was blamed. This year, he said, the uptick in homicides "isn't being driven by anything simple or direct. Somehow it's coming out much more naturally in the community."
Police and other crime experts agree that it is hard to point to specific reasons for the increase, but they note a rise in gang activity and a subculture of witness intimidation that hampers prosecutors seeking murder convictions.
In the Police Department and the mayor's office, frustration abounds - reducing the number of homicides to 175 in an entire year has been an ambitious goal, originally set by Gov. Martin O'Malley, when he was first elected mayor in 1999. But the closest the city came during his tenure was 253 in 2002.
The last time the city recorded 175 or fewer homicides in a year was three decades ago, in 1977, when the toll was 171.
"All too often, people who we have arrested time and time again are back out on the streets, only to find themselves as murder suspects or victims," said Matt Jablow, a police spokesman.
"We are arresting them, but these folks get off," Mayor Sheila Dixon said in similar remarks yesterday. "They need to lock them up and keep them there. And I don't think our courts are hearing this. How do you teach someone to respect a human being?"
Judge John M. Glynn, chief of the Baltimore Circuit Court's criminal docket, disputed the mayor's assertion that the courts were deaf to the problem. He said that when criminals are convicted of violent offenses, they are sentenced "harshly."
But, he said, the Circuit Court deals with about 10,000 felony cases a year, and the system can handle only about 500 trials.
That means a large number of cases are resolved through other means, he said, such as plea bargains, or tossed out for various reasons, such as inadequate case work by authorities or because witnesses refuse to testify.
It is well known that a Baltimore jury is reluctant to convict someone of a violent crime, he said, and the result is that defendants are defiant in the courtroom and willing to risk a jury trial.
"Many of these jurors simply won't vote to find these kids guilty of violent crimes," Glynn said. "If the citizens want to know what the problem is, I suggest they look at themselves. And, of course, the politicians are no better than citizens. But the heart of this problem lies with the citizens of Baltimore. They commit the crimes. They don't testify against the criminals. And they don't vote to convict the guilty."
Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the police union who was a lieutenant in the Western District in 1993, said residents are more distrustful of police than they were a decade ago or more.
That is due, in part, to the aggressive arrest policy for quality-of-life infractions under the O'Malley administration, he said.
Many residents have had negative experiences with police, making them less willing to cooperate with police officers, he said. That view was echoed by several detectives in different units in the department.
"You put all that together and then you're here in 2007 with another climbing homicide rate," Blair said.
There have been 413 nonfatal shootings this year - 101 more victims scarred by gunfire than at the same time last year.
Homicide victims and suspects often mirror each other, in terms of having an arrest record and a history of violence.
Statistics, compiled by the department's homicide unit through July 6, show that 90 percent of victims have arrest records - with two-thirds arrested for violent crimes. Eight out of 10 had arrests for drug crimes; nearly four out of 10 were on parole or probation at the time of their deaths, and nearly one in three victims had arrests involving an illegal gun.