As Killings Persist, A Circle Of Grief Outgrows Its Space

Crime Scenes

December 10, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann ,

"My son was murdered."

It's how the mothers and the fathers begin their sentences.

They've lost loved ones to the violent streets of Baltimore - years ago for some, just weeks ago for others - and they want to talk. It's therapeutic.

They seek out a reporter.

"Do you want to talk to me about my son?"

They're wearing T-shirts with the picture of their lost child on the front. They're holding pictures above their heads for all to see. They're clutching white angels to put on a tree in a room at the downtown courthouse. It's the annual Christmas party for Survivors Against Violence Everywhere, a program sponsored by the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office to help people grieve.

There are not enough chairs.

"It seems we've outgrown our space," says the city's top prosecutor, Patricia C. Jessamy.

"It's a sad thing," she adds.

Jessamy tells the group of somber faces to "become better, not bitter."

They're urged to remember their sons and daughters in happy times, to never forget but also to move on, to celebrate the holidays, to do something for themselves.

But murder is such a hard word to say.

Ellen Bentley lost her 19-year-old son Donald to a shooting on Aug. 11, 1989. He was a Gilman grad, a student at Morehouse College, shot in the back on Maryland Avenue. He was running away when a gunman wearing sweats tried to rob him and his friends of their watches.

Ellen Bentley had to admit her son was murdered - to say the word - so she could accept what happened.

"It took forever," she says.

A therapist got it out of her.

"She kept after me, 'You got to say it, you got to say it.' It ripped my heart out. It was awful."

Bentley, now one of the leaders of the support group, calls the homicide detective assigned to the case every year on the anniversary of her son's death. She's still waiting for police to make an arrest.

So is Jessie Snead.

Her son, Terrance Thompson, was one of two men shot and killed inside a rowhouse on Hilldale Avenue in 1993. He was found lying on the pavement after he had tried to crawl to his house on Reisterstown Road. He died at a nearby hospital. He was 26 years old.

Jessie Snead still struggles to say "murder."

"I had never had anyone taken away from me like that," she says. "I still have a problem with that word."

The group has grown into a nonprofit that has lobbied Annapolis for stricter gun laws and victims' rights legislation. Members opened a memorial garden at the Cylburn Arboretum, and they offer counseling and help navigate the bewildering world at the downtown courthouse.

"Too many of our loved ones have to grapple with losing someone to homicide," Jessamy tells the group.

This year, 219 have fallen to homicide. Last year it was 234, a 20-year low, the police tell us. Back in the 1990s, the city had 10 consecutive years with 300 or more victims. Jessie Snead's son was shot in Baltimore's most murderous year on record - 353 killings.

The number of people slain in Baltimore since 1970: 10,591.

The families decorating the Angel Tree of Remembrance in the crowded, stifling Room 410 of the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse are tired of the numbers. They're so impersonal. The party, says Snead, "is a reminder that each one of those numbers belongs to someone."

She stands and reads out the names, and the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and grandmothers and children climb over chairs and each other to reach the tree and hang an angel.

Each represents a victim.

Snead calls out 61 names.

"And there are more every year," she says.

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