January 4, 2013

Chances are that Angelo Alphonso Payne and Jason Anthony Emma didn’t know each other. Both men were in their 20s and lived in our nation’s capital.

And both Payne, 23, and Emma, 28, were slain during the holidays.

Jason Emma was shot 13 times. He drew his last breath in the front seat of his black Audi in the 1200 block of C Street SE, on Capitol Hill, after 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve.

Angelo Payne was fatally shot the day before New Year’s Eve, a little after midnight, in the 3400 block of Croffut Place SE.

I learned about both tragic events from this newspaper.

Emma’s slaying, however, attracted more media attention.

From The Post’s Web site, on Emma: “NE man fatally shot outside Capitol Hill home,” Dec. 24; “Police lean toward robbery motive in Capitol Hill slaying,” Dec. 26; “Mayor calls for more beat police after Capitol Hill killing,” Dec. 27; “Two men seen walking near Capitol Hill killing sought,” Dec. 29.

By all accounts, Emma was a great guy. He was excited about having moved into the city to live with longtime friends from Arlington in a home within walking distance of restaurants and bars.

His family and friends loved him. Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the D.C. Council member who represents Emma’s neighborhood, rushed to console Emma’s family and pressed for police action. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), calling Emma’s killing “horrific,” prodded the council to act on legislation he has put forward that would put more police officers on the streets.

This homicide apparently riled a neighborhood unaccustomed to ghastly crimes. The coverage made sense and should continue, relentlessly, until the perpetrators are brought to justice.

But I wish I also knew more about the shooting of Payne.

It’s not enough to know that police responding to reports of gunfire found Payne unconscious and that he later died at a hospital, or that there are no suspects or motives. Oh, yes, and that a shooting within hours of Payne’s slaying also left dead another young man, 22-year-old Darnell Rivers, in another Southeast neighborhood.

What do we know about these victims and their families? They, too, are human beings. Aren’t they worth space in the paper?

This is not the first time I’ve written about victims who seem to fall into the cracks. There was “Tia Mitchell’s murder” [op-ed, July 13, 1996] and “Tia Mitchell’s murder, (cont’d).” [op-ed, July 20, 1996]. I wrote series on the deaths of Jonathan Magbie, David Rosenbaumand Dawn Rothwell.

People’s lives aren’t worthless. Just because they die in a part of town where murders are more frequent, or their slayings aren’t particularly gruesome, doesn’t or shouldn’t mean they count for less. Nor should motive — whatever it may be — render their loss of life meaningless.

It should be noted that news reports do not mention the race of Emma, Payne or Rivers. Fine. There should be no color line in the reporting of crime. White deaths should not be played up, nor should black deaths be played down.

But what’s a reader familiar with the demographics of District neighborhoods to think when reading about Emma and Payne?

And who are the people pulling the triggers?

Consider this quote from a Dec. 3, 2010, article in the Atlantic, “Are All Murderers Mentally Ill?” Elaine Whitfield Sharp, a defense attorney with two decades’ experience working on murder cases, said that killers’ “brains don’t work like the rest of ours do. To deliberately kill someone requires crossing a profound boundary. Most of us couldn’t do it. We couldn’t even think about it. But they can. They do. Why? Because they’re mentally ill.”

Sharp doesn’t excuse behavior. She insists that murderers should be locked up and kept “away from the rest of us.” In her view, people who kill do not act within acceptable bounds, making them a danger to the rest of us.

Granted, Sharp is not a mental health expert. But she has an informed lay opinion.

In no way am I disparaging mental illness. The argument that all murderers are mentally ill is, of course, subject to challenge. But killers lack the civilized restraint that tells them murder is wrong.

So we come back to Angelo Payne, Jason Emma and the people who killed them.

The shooters demonstrated no regard for boundaries. They did not care about the pain they caused Emma, Payne and the 86 other D.C. homicide victims in 2012. Or their loved ones.

That is what makes murderers so sobering and challenging: There are many in this city and region, and in places such as Chicago and Newtown, Conn.

Whether a shooter kills one person, goes on a five-month killing spree or commits mass murder in a single morning, America has too many killings of all kinds. That is our problem. What is our solution? Vice President Biden’s gun-control task force should take on that question, too.

kingc@washpost.com