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Death Toll

Some Murders Count, but Most Don't

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 10/30/2002

Ten people dead. Three others critically wounded. Over a three-week period, literally millions of people, from Baltimore to Richmond, terrorized. Afraid to go food shopping. Afraid to get gas. Afraid to let their kids even go to school.

From Oct. 2 until Oct. 23, as alleged serial snipers John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo (aka Lee Boyd Malvo) made their blood-soaked way from Montgomery County to Ashland, Va., and back again, the story was the front page headline from the Washington Post to the Jerusalem Post. Residents living in the communities surrounding the capital city of the most powerful country in the world were living in fear of walking out of their front doors. From the murder of the first victim--James Martin, 55, outside a Shoppers Food Warehouse--until the death of Montgomery County Ride On bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, no one in this region could talk about anything else.

What made these murders so terrifying is obvious: the absolutely random nature of the killings. Walk into the snipers' kill zone and you would be the next victim. The only one of the 13 people shot who seemed to be deliberately targeted was the 13-year-old boy who is recovering after being shot in the chest outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie. It would appear that the only reason he was selected was that authorities in Montgomery had locked down their schools and put heavy police presence into place. So, the snipers slipped over the line into Prince George's County to demonstrate that they held the power, no one else.

The bloody spree and the devastating fear accompanying it will be topic A for a very long time. But, the reality is that these crimes and the overwhelming media attention they engendered has brought into stark relief something that no one has focused on: Some murders count, but most don't.

Don't misunderstand: The deaths of 10 people and the serious wounding of three others is horrifying for the victims, the survivors, and their families. All of them died on nothing more than what appears to be the bloody whims of two people who seemed to thrill in the kill and bask in the spotlight, chaos, and fear they had created. The pain of all these families is hopefully something most of us will never have to experience for ourselves.

If the snipers had continued their spree at the same rate for a year, they would have killed 174 people. Baltimore City reached 174 murders for the year Sept. 7. Ironically, law-and-order Mayor Martin O'Malley promised in his campaign and throughout his first two years in office that the city's murder rate would be reduced to 175 killings for the entire year of 2002. As of Tuesday, Oct. 29, 217 people had been murdered in the city this year. Why is there no outcry over all of those deaths?

Even more shocking, from Oct. 2 to Oct. 23, while the snipers killed 10, in Baltimore City 23 people were murdered. Twenty-three lives were snuffed out in this city alone.

Of those murders, seven of the victims did receive special attention both in the media and in the streets of the city: The Dawson family. Angela and Carnell Dawson and their five children were burned to death, apparently because of their stand against the drug dealers in their neighborhood. On Oct. 16, two-thirds of the way through the spree killings, police say the Dawsons' neighbor, 21-year-old Darrell Brooks, broke in their front door, poured gasoline on the floor, and set it ablaze. Angela Dawson and her children died almost immediately. Carnell Dawson had a horrendous lingering death; burned over 80 percent of his body, he died about 24 hours before Muhammad and Malvo were captured.

And what of the other 16 people killed in this city during the snipers' spree? What do we know of them, the circumstances of their deaths, whether their killers have been found? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Some murders count, but most don't.

How as a society have we come to view violent death this way, to accept it? How as a metropolitan area have we come to simply accept that in Baltimore City there are an estimated 60,000 addicts, to simply accept that the cost of fueling that drug trade will be several hundred murders a year? How have we become so placid?

At their press conference announcing Brooks' arrest, police Commissioner Edward Norris, Mayor O'Malley, and other elected officials expressed their outrage at the gruesome nature of the murders of the Dawson family. Every time a child is killed in a drug-related murder, Norris was asked, people say it is a turning point, but it never is. What makes this case any different?

Norris, who seemed genuinely outraged over the murders, talked about community acceptance of the drug trade and that this case had to be a "tipping point" over drugs. Everyone had to contribute--for example, car dealers couldn't continue to accept large cash payments from drug dealers to buy automobiles. State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, who lives two blocks from the death scene, talked about how this time it was different. "We consider this a terrorist attack," McFadden said. "They have made the Dawson family martyrs."

But, in the cold, hard reality of this city, the likelihood is this: A year from now, the international media will be clamoring for seats in the courtroom as Montgomery County State's Attorney Doug Gansler tries to stretch Maryland law to make the sniper killings a death-penalty case. (Maryland law provides for the death penalty for mass murder, more than one murder at a time, but not necessarily for serial killing. Gansler, as he indicated in the Oct. 25 press conference announcing that the county had filed six first-degree murder charges against each man, will clearly be arguing that because the four morning murders on Oct. 3 occurred in such a short time frame, they were, in fact, a mass murder.)

Back here in Baltimore, the Dawson family's tragedy will be relegated to the sidelines. Just like the other 16 people murdered in Baltimore during the snipers' spree, no one aside from their family and friends will remember them or why they died. And in Baltimore, once again, over 200 more people will have been murdered. And most people won't be afraid or outraged. Some murders count, but most don't.

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