CRIME SOLVING The cold realities of homicide
In 2003, the solved homicide rate was higher than the nationwide average.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Snitch.
Being one isn't something many are willing to do when it comes to helping city detectives solve homicides.
"There's a bigger stigma attached to 'snitch' than murderer in this town," said Detective Sgt. John Kelty. "Unless there's a truly innocent victim -- a child or the elderly -- people don't come forward."
Detective Sgt. Daryl Martin nodded his head in agreement.
He added that it's not as if upstanding citizens are the witnesses.
"The witnesses are often doing something wrong themselves -- why would they come forward?" he said. "They don't care if it's a killing over drugs -- that's part of the business."
FBI records show that, nationwide in 2003, the most recent year available, the clearance rate for homicides was 62.4 percent, said FBI Special Agent John Kane, head of the bureau's Boardman office. In 2002, the clearance rate was 64 percent.
"Clearance" means the crime is solved.
Youngstown solved 51 percent of its homicides in 2002; 68 percent in 2003 (higher than the national average); and 27 percent in 2004, records show.
"Just because they weren't solved last year doesn't mean they won't be solved," Martin said. "I have two that are close to being solved."
Kelty said he has one.
Kane said that, in his opinion (not the bureau's), a person's standing in the community plays into whether a witness is willing to come forward. "If a drug dealer gets capped -- they think, so what?"
He termed it a "cold, hard fact" that society values some people more than others. He said it's human nature to be less likely to come forward if someone who has been terrorizing your neighborhood gets killed.
FBI profilers talk about serial killers, how some are heavily pursued and others, say truck drivers who kill prostitutes, are not, Kane said. There's a strata of people some in society consider expendable, depending on upbringing and morals, he said.
He said citizens mobilize to help if a "regular person" gets killed, not when the victim is a known criminal. As an example, Kane said the community mobilized when a Youngstown police officer was shot to death in 2003.
Must have evidence
Martin said homicide detectives, 85 to 90 percent of the time, know who committed the crime, but without physical evidence or witnesses, don't have a case.
"You can't blame the witnesses sometimes, why should they stick their neck out?" Martin said. "Why would they get involved? They don't want to testify."
Kelty said a standard defense lawyer tactic is to delay their client's homicide case as long as possible, sometimes years. During the wait, witnesses disappear, get threatened or become indifferent.
Both detectives derided the local pretrial discovery rule that provides the defense with witnesses' names and statements.
Kelty and Martin said they investigate a lot of retaliation shootings, mostly over drugs.
"Boardman, Austintown, Canfield and Poland have drugs but [the dealers] don't shoot each other," Kelty said. "They have the drugs without the violence."
Kelty said drug users or dealers tend to steal, which leads to the issue of keeping respect in the streets. To keep respect, they retaliate.
A lot of times, a break in an unsolved slaying comes when someone involved gets in trouble again, Kelty and Martin said. The bad guy wants to deal by providing information, hoping it will lessen the penalty for his latest crime.
The detectives said this seems to break more cases than going public with details of cold cases, hoping for tips.
Lt. Robin Lees, public information officer, sees a parallel between the city's apathy at thug-on-thug killings and the slayings committed by Prohibition-era gangsters. He said the average citizen doesn't see drug-related homicides as a direct threat to them and doesn't get involved.
He said the violent drug trade is not unlike the violence that permeated Prohibition, where rival factions engaged in murder to protect territory. "The heart of it goes to profits."
Lees said to lessen the violence and solve more homicides there has to be a change in the community's attitude about drug dealing. Putting criminals in jail, he said, prevents crime and shrinks the pool of victims.
"It's a warped value system that produces people who will not give up a murderer in fear of being called a snitch," Lees said. "If the victim is viewed as a drug dealer, it's not the same as an innocent victim. We have people come forward for innocent victims."
He said the "snitch" stigma doesn't attach when witnesses help detectives solve cases where the victims were not involved in criminal activity. "The witnesses' idea is, if thugs are killing thugs, I don't care, but if they're shooting my neighbor, that's different."