In blog, homicide victims have their say

January 19, 2011

On the morning of Nov. 15, Laura Norton Amico found herself penned inside a scrum of journalists who had packed a room at D.C. Superior Court for a glimpse of the lead suspect in one of Washington's highest-profile murder cases: the 2001 killing of federal intern Chandra Levy.

But while everyone around her was jockeying for the best view of Ingmar Guandique, the man who would later be convicted of Levy's murder, Amico waited patiently for the clerk to call the unheralded case of Vernon McRae, a 22-year-old Southeast man charged with fatally wounding Michael Washington, 63, during an argument in October.

Amico, 29, a former police reporter from Santa Rosa, Calif., has quietly carved out a role for herself as the District's most comprehensive chronicler of the unlawful taking of human life. Since October, she has documented her efforts on a blog called Homicide Watch D.C. Her mission sounds simple: "Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case."

It was inspired in part by what she sees as the limitations of traditional crime coverage. "I find it frustrating when I know there is a case, and all I see is the police department's rewritten press release, when cases aren't followed through, when there is no closure," said Amico, who puts in 10-hour days, seven days a week on the site and makes no money from the venture.

On Homicide Watch D.C., the story of every slaying is told by marking the location using Google Maps; linking to obituaries, Tweets and Facebook tribute pages; posting copies of suspects' charging documents; and letting friends and families of the victims and defendants vent in the comments section.

The concept has forebears in other cities. There is the Los Angeles Times' Homicide Report, begun in 2007, and the now-defunct Chicagocrime.org, launched in 2005. Amico said she was also inspired by the site Who Murdered Robert Wone, which was created by four Washington area men to offer "subatomic" coverage of the unsolved killing of Wone, a lawyer for Radio Free Asia who was killed under mysterious circumstances in the home of a college friend in 2006.

"Every case should get that kind of attention," Amico said.

Homicide Watch D.C. and sites like it fill a void in crime coverage, said Craig Brownstein, one of the creators of the Wone site.

"There is a large audience for in-depth crime coverage, but traditional outlets just don't have the personnel or bandwidth anymore to cover the microscopic details of cases, especially ones that take years to unfold like the Wone murder," Brownstein said. "In D.C.'s case, there is a seemingly endless body count, and each victim deserves as much attention and press coverage as possible."

Creating a niche

Amico recognized there was an opening for a different sort of crime coverage not long after she and her husband, an interactive editor at "PBS NewsHour," arrived in Washington in 2009.

Although she'd been a crime reporter in Santa Rosa for two years, she couldn't find the same job in the Washington area. So she decided to create one.

In Santa Rosa, Amico had grown accustomed to delving into every aspect of the handful of homicides that take place there each year. She didn't see that kind of coverage in the District, which reported 131 homicides last year. But she also knew what was possible, with deep reserves of publicly available data, the Internet and social media.

After observing virtual memorials to victims, she also noticed that people were looking to stay in touch with one another and share updates on cases. "I wanted to create something so those who don't have the tools could share those experiences," she said.

Homicide Watch's reliance on comments is part of a larger effort to provide an unfiltered and accessible experience for readers, but not a fact-free free-for-all. Amico verifies what she can, running information by detectives, and she doesn't post comments without approving them. Then she gets out of the way.

"I don't need to be the one filtering everything through print," she said. "I might highlight a comment and encourage people to participate in the discussion instead of [saying], 'This is what happened.' "

Gathering all of the elements so people can piece the story of a killing together is still labor intensive. Although more information is available electronically than ever, it is often scattered among different arms of law enforcement. And some information can still be obtained only through old-fashioned reporting methods, such as talking to victims' family members, going to the courthouse each morning to see who is in lockup and listening to the police scanner.

All of the information goes into a database that the public will eventually be able to use to search for information about homicides by street name, investigating detective and courtroom judge. The result will be "something you would think should exist, but doesn't," Amico said.

A growing audience

Since the site debuted last fall, it has become a crib sheet for crime reporters and has built a following, although Amico has not done any marketing or promotion. She doesn't have the budget for that. She had hoped to line up foundation funding before launching it, but when she wasn't able to, she decided to push it anyway.

In its first month, it had 505 page views; by December, more than 35,000. And it has been noticed by law enforcement officials, including D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

"It can only help us try and get people to provide information," Lanier said on the Jan. 6 edition of WTOP's "Ask the Chief" segment. "As long as the facts are correct, it doesn't hurt to have somebody else out there helping us get information, if there is information to be gotten."

Craig Satcher, 28, whose brother Nicholas, 22, was killed this month in a domestic incident, was able to use Homicide Watch D.C. to let people know the timing and location of a vigil and to raise money to give his brother a proper burial.

He also used the comments section to correct rumors about how his brother had died.

"I want to be heard," he said.

Rose Berger, 47, turned to Homicide Watch D.C. to follow the case of Ebony Franklin, a teenager whose body was found just before Christmas stuffed in a garbage can in an alley near Berger's Columbia Heights home.

A slaying leaves "a hole the community," Berger said. And to be able to follow the case "allows for healing to happen."

On the radar

Defense lawyers are less enthused about the combination of victim tribute pages with allegations that have not been proved in a court of law.

"It hurts the potential defendant. The blog poisons any potential jury pool," said criminal defense lawyer Bernard S. Grimm.

Amico said the real problem is that the wider community knows little about the nature of the District's homicides. Many people think most killings in the city are drug-related, although many don't fit that profile.

She cites the case of Angel Morse, a 13-year-old who was shot in the head in the basement of her home in October. Amico watched as the case unfolded in real time, starting with a flurry of Tweets about the discovery of Morse's body. More Tweets followed a police plea for help finding a Metro Access vehicle that was seen fleeing the scene, and then subsided once the car was found with Morse's father, Robert Carter, inside. Carter has been charged in the girl's death.

"There was this big social media push to find this guy. But then after that Friday afternoon, it dropped completely off the radar," said Amico, who was the only reporter in the courtroom for Carter's preliminary hearing.

The more obscure the case, the more compelling it is to her.

"It's the ones where people don't have anyone and whose homicides aren't reported" in the media, she said. "There's never an obituary. It's almost like it didn't happen."

Amico is following the case of Vernon McRae, whose Nov. 15 hearing was postponed. McRae is scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing Friday. And Amico plans to be there.

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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