Authors of 'Why Do We Kill?' give answers in Hampden

Big turnout for talk at Atomic Books

July 29, 2011|By Larry

On a hot September afternoon in 2007, Devon Richardson, 14, a chronic truant with a juvenile rap sheet, was shooting malt liquor bottles and rooftop birds with a stolen shotgun, when his brother said, "I bet you can't shoot that lady."

Without aiming, Richardson fired off a lucky shot 160 feet in the air. On the receiving end was Janice Letmate, a legal secretary and grandmother, who had just gotten off the bus near her east Baltimore row house.

When Det. Kelvin Sewell finally got Richardson to confess to the killing of Letmate, the 4-foot, 10-inch-tall teen hung his head and said, "I shot her. Can I go home now?"

Sewell told the true story with sorrow Thursday at Atomic Books in Hampden, where he and journalist Stephen Janis came to promote and sign copies of their new book, "Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore."

"You're not going to want to put it down," Sewell promised a packed bookstore that included several detectives and a cameraman filming the talk for C-SPAN2's Book TV.

Sewell, Janis and book editor Al Forman are promoting the paperback as an unvarnished insider's account of crime in a city with one of the country's highest murder rates.

But they also weigh in on why the city is so prone to violence, a topic that dominated discussion Thursday.

"Baltimore is consistently one of the most violent cities in the country," said Janis, a former investigative reporter for the Baltimore Examiner and now a senior producer for Fox 45. "The question is why?"

The answer lies in the city's abandoned homes, homeless people, closed recreation centers and failing schools, said Forman, of the website investigative, and Sewell, who retired from the Baltimore police department last winter as a homicide supervisor. Sewell now works for the Pokomoke City police department on the Eastern Shore.

Sewell, 49, said it's essential to teach children morals early on, "to get them at the elementary school age and get their minds on the straight and narrow," he said.

But Janis, 47, said too often in Baltimore, "When a conflict arises, it's easier to pick up a gun."

Forman said many teens have no expectation of opportunity or even of living very long, and so have no incentive to turn their lives around.

They resort to crime because "they see that the drug dealers and gangsters have all the money," he said.

And they agreed with a former Sun reporter in the audience that the media, especially TV news, over-emphasizes crime with a "if it bleeds, it leads" mindset.

Baltimore is still closely identified with crime shows on TV like "The Wire."

Janis asked, "Have we become 'wire-fied' and known as a city that exports misery?"

And he worried that too many people believe, "Baltimore is supposed to fail. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

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