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Blog brings human face to big-city murder

  • Story Highlights
  • Crime reporter Jill Leovy spends a year documenting every homicide in L.A.
  • Findings reported in blog on The Los Angeles Times Web site
  • Leovy obtained details of nearly 900 slayings from official and unofficial sources
  • The Homicide Report continues in 2008 with another blogger
  • Next Article in Crime »
By Kara Finnstrom and Ann O'Neill
CNN
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Two or three people are killed each day by others in Los Angeles County. Most of them died anonymously until Jill Leovy and her blog, The Homicide Report, came along.

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L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy recorded the urban rituals of violent death with a small digital camera.

For more than a year, Leovy made it her job to document every homicide in Los Angeles County. It had never been done before.

Like most big-city newspapers, the one Leovy works for -- The Los Angeles Times -- reports only the most "newsworthy" cases. But those killings, elementary school drive-bys and celebrity murders only account for 10 percent of the county's homicides, Leovy found.

She wanted to go deeper, to put a human face on the toll homicide was taking, particularly in L.A.'s black and Latino communities.

"The Web offered what the paper did not: unlimited space," Leovy wrote in a front-page story summarizing her year as creator and the first blogger for The Homicide Report. Video Watch Leovy make the rounds like a beat cop »

The Homicide Report began in January 2007 with 17 names collected from the coroner's office and grew to include about 845 names by year's end.

Some entries read like boilerplate police report jargon: "Manuel Garcia Perez, 17, a Latino youth, was shot multiple times in the torso at Josephine Court and Bullis Road ..."

Leovy soon found the official record to be inadequate. She hit the streets and talked to the families.

The entry for Joseph Watson, 17, demonstrates how easily a slaying can slip through the official cracks: "Joseph was shot in the face near the intersection of 109th and Budlong Avenue in Athens on January 19. ... The homicide was not included in the coroner's tally."

The blog immediately struck a chord with readers, who posted comments including this one: "It is a noble effort, to be sure, but is it ever depressing -- almost like they're disposable people."

Read in one sitting, The Homicide Report is a staggering document. The sheer volume of all those lost lives catalogued in one place resonates in a way no statistics-heavy annual report can. This, despite the fact that 2007, relatively speaking, was a slow year for murder.

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"Your basic mission as a journalist, you bear witness, you see things that are unseen," Leovy said while driving a CNN reporter through some of L.A.'s bloodiest neighborhoods. "It's sort of awful to think of people being murdered and nobody seeing it."

And so, Leovy talked cops, coroners and clerks into parting with information no one had asked for before, looked past the crime tape, knocked on the doors of the grieving, and absorbed the language and rituals of urban homicide mourning.

"One of the things that made Jill's work very eye-opening to me is she had one foot with the police and one foot with the victims," said her editor, Gale Holland. "So many stories that you see written have one point of view or the other. She transcended that."

The legwork alone was a daunting task, considering that Los Angeles County stretches from the desert of Palmdale, past the manicured lawns of Pasadena to the seaside docks of Long Beach, covering more than 4,000 square miles. There are 89 municipalities, multiple police agencies, and until The Homicide Report, no one keeping track of it all.

Leovy began working out of her car. Most of her cases came from a concentration of neighborhoods on the city's southern fringes: Compton, Florence, Hawthorne, Watts, Boyle Heights.

"This dense concentration of violence, it's unlike anything you would see elsewhere," she said.

"Here is this glaring, glaring category of suffering that is so extremely divided along racial lines," Leovy added. "Some people must watch their sons day and night and contemplate the idea of them being murdered."

Gangs play a huge role, accounting for about 70 percent of the homicides, said Detective Sal LaBarbera, who supervises the LAPD's Watts homicide squad. He came to view the blog as a resource, cutting through dozens of police agencies' red tape.

"It's one-stop shopping," he said. And, people who wouldn't talk to the police sometimes would talk to each other, posting comments on the blog.

The Homicide Report includes dispatches about the culture of urban homicide, including the curbside memorials that spring up almost instantly, homicide funerals and homicide car washes that help raise money for a proper send-off. In a dispatch describing the funeral for one victim, readers learned that "He be slippin' " is street talk for being murdered.

"I always like to keep records of the T-shirts and stuff," Leovy says. "There's a kind of language of mourning down here. The shrines just go up immediately, and there are certain traditions that go around the homicides."

Her reporting grew to include cold cases the cops were working on: "Cold case: Searching for Sharkey, suspected shooter of women."

As far as readers of The Homicide Report know, they're still searching for Sharkey.

Families pleaded, both through Leovy's reporting and in their own comments on the blog, for help in finding a loved one's killer.

The blog also delved into the world of the homicide cops.

One post, called "Bungled names, mingled ashes," reads like the opening of a true-crime bestseller: "'Is the name really Ramirez?' In response, a detective shakes his head and shrugs. 'It is now,' he says dryly. For some homicide victims, the most fundamental fact -- who they were -- is as much a mystery as the identities of their killers."

The Homicide Report tries to answer questions such as, "Are there fewer homicides when it rains?" (Maybe). It also includes the names of suspects shot to death by police.

And, it includes one detail usually left out of traditional crime reporting -- the race of the suspects and victims. As Leovy saw it, race is a fact that helps illuminate the truth about homicide.

But it's the grieving family members, ignored for so long, who make The Homicide Report a compelling read. The slaying of Dovon Harris, 15, and his mother's consuming grief, became a major story line, with monthly follow-ups.

Gunshots were fired June 15 as Dovon and a group of teens stepped off a bus in Watts. A bullet struck him in the head. A month later, readers learned that Dovon was kept on life support for two days so his organs could be donated. His mother, Barbara Pritchett, said she had to quit her job as a home health care worker because she has no bereavement leave, and "I would just cry all day."

Months later, Pritchett is still struggling. "I'm lost," she told CNN on the day a reporter accompanied Leovy on her rounds.

Leovy recently handed off blogging duties to a colleague, Ruben Vives. She says she hopes to write longer stories about homicide, but that it took the simple, straightforward presentation of the blog to capture the enormity of the human toll.

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Leovy is reluctant to discuss any toll covering the homicide beat might have taken on her. She says she's been "humbled" by the experience.

Says her editor, Holland: "It was the story Jill wanted to tell." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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