In blog, homicide victims have their say
Wednesday, 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.