Examining The Lives Of Homicide Victims p. 14

By: Joe Strupp S.F. Examiner to run in-depth stories on their past
troubles, personal lives and what led to their deaths sp.

SAN FRANCISCO'S FIRST homicide of 1995 was more than just another news story to San Francisco Examiner reporter Jim Zamora.
Instead of simply reporting that the victim was killed by a grocery clerk after allegedly threatening the clerk's life, the veteran police reporter dug into the dead man's past and discovered a trail of hard times and troubles that led him to hold up a neighborhood store the night he died.
Readers found out that "Victim #1," Lonnie West Verdon, was more than just the first of dozens of homicide victims to make the headlines for 1995.
They learned that the 24-year-old Verdon had grown up on the city's toughest streets as the son of a porno theater owner, had hung out with drug dealers and gangs and had also stood trial for murder himself.
But the street-smart tough guy also had a kinder side, Zamora reported, after talking to the slain man's friends and neighbors. He found that Verdon, who had two children, would help senior citizens on the street and spread kindness at any social gathering.
Zamora's story is just the first of what Examiner editors have promised will be a unique, personalized view of homicide in San Francisco. The afternoon newspaper has vowed to run an in-depth story on all murder victims, their past troubles, personal lives and what led to their deaths.
"We feel like the victims are often relegated to just a statistic," said Kandace Bender, Examiner metro editor. "We wanted to draw attention to the victims and the homicide rate by telling the story of each one."
The newspaper kicked off the new approach on Jan. 4 with the Verdon story, playing it on Page One, with a special homicide logo and an editor's note explaining the approach.
"There's a life, a personality, a family behind every homicide in San Francisco," the note stated. "In short, there's a story, and in 1995 the Examiner will try to tell it for every homicide victim."
The Verdon story and each subsequent article have included a statistical chart, with the victim's age, address, background, and a summary of the murder. A map showing the location of the crime also is made part of each story, as well as a victim count box reminding readers of the city's murder tally to date.
"It humanizes crime," said Bender. "If people can learn about the life of a victim, it can make it stand out in their minds. We are going to document every single homicide in San Francisco ? we have made the commitment, and we have the staff to do it."
Zamora, a 10-year police reporter whose background includes covering Los Angeles gangs for the L.A. Times, said he was tired of writing murder stories that treated victims like empty numbers and statistics.
"One of the things that gets to me is that people get killed, and they don't get the publicity of a Polly Klass," said Zamora, referring to the child abducted from her home in nearby Petaluma in 1993, whose case drew national attention. "These people's lives and deaths are important, and I really wanted to know what happened to them."
Subsequent homicide articles have included the story of Victim #2, Greg Gibson, a homeless 38-year-old man who was found shot to death in an apartment complex in the city's low-income Hunter's Point area.
Reporter Marsha Ginsburg researched the victim's past and found he had been a "gifted" athlete and a good worker, but had fallen into the world of crack cocaine that started him on a downward trend.
The city's third homicide of 1995 involved the death of 26-year-old Deshawn Newt, whom police described as a habitual criminal who made his victims so fearful they refused to press charges.
But reporter Kathleen Sullivan, who covered the killing, also wrote that Newt was known as a friendly person who was described by his wife as "caring and loving." In addition, Sullivan's coverage noted the victim's love of Motown music and weight lifting.
"I was struck by how much contrast there was between his family's recollection of him and the police portrayal," said Sullivan, a business writer who had never covered a homicide before the Newt killing.
"It's a hard story to write," she added. "It's hard to call up someone whose son has just died, but it makes you want to know what else is in the story. It leaves you hungering for more."
The Examiner's new approach followed a year when San Francisco's murder rate dropped to its lowest level in three years. After hitting a longtime high of 130 killings in 1993, the 1994 murder count dipped, below 100, to 98, for the first time since 1989.
Investigators in the San Francisco Police Department's homicide unit said they appreciated the extra attention the newspaper was giving to their beat. Inspector Napoleon Hendrix said that although the number of murders is down, each case is still difficult to solve and needs public input.
"I think this coverage can be positive if used in the right way," said Hendrix. "I don't know if they should highlight each one, but certain ones that are significant. There are murders that should be brought to the attention of the public, because they might get involved and tell the police what they know."
But Hendrix admitted that giving homicides bigger play in the newspaper could motivate criminals seeking attention in the press.
"I don't want it to become something where someone gets attention for committing a crime," said Hendrix. "Somewhere, along the line, I'm sure that will come to pass if the wrong ones get highlighted ? especially gang members who might use it as a badge of honor."
Police Chief Anthony Ribera, who has had a long-running feud with the Examiner over its coverage of a high-profile sexual harassment case brought against him by a former woman officer, said he is not opposed to giving victims more attention, but feared sensationalism.
"Most of their articles have not been generally supportive of the police department in the past," said Ribera. "I would take a wait-and-see attitude. The Examiner has not been real fair with me in the past."
But Examiner managing editor Sharon Rosenhause said the newspaper's goal is not to highlight the crime or the killer but to show that the victims are people.
"We did not create the crime; the stories are there," Rosenhause said. "This is about what happens in a big city, and crime is part of that. A lot of newspapers too often kiss off stories like these ? we want to give them the attention they deserve."
?( The San Francisco Examiner has vowed to run an in-depth story on all murder victims, their past troubles, personal lives and what led to their deaths) [Photo & Caption]
?(Strupp is a freelance writer based in San Frnacisco) [Caption]


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