Under the gun: An everyday murder

August 2, 2011

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Children on a street in Englewood on Chicago's South Side. (WBEZ/Bill Healy)

Chicago and the city of Toronto, Ontario are the same size. In Chicago, about  450 people are murdered every year, most with guns. Toronto has about 60 murders a year.  One reason is that murder is a big deal in Toronto, and if the number of gun murders there goes about 30--every new murder is big news, front page news.  According to politicians and law enforcement officials there, the media attention keeps the city focused on solving gun violence.  Gun violence in Chicago is so commonplace that when a 21-year-old named Shawn Carter was shot and killed recently, few people took notice.

When Shawn Carter died on May 12, the Chicago Tribune published a short story -- about 120 words -- noting his age, the time and location of the shooting and the block where he lived. The Tribune story, citing a police department spokeswoman, said Carter was talking to two girls, and other men told him to leave her alone, sparking an altercation that ended in the shooting.

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Second in a series
The cities of Chicago and Toronto are the same size. Chicago has about 450 murders a year. Toronto? About 60. In the series, Under the Gun: Murder in Chicago and Toronto, WBEZ’s criminal and legal affairs reporter Robert Wildeboer asks: Why?

Previously

Justine Lawrence, Carter’s great-grandmother, said she contacted the media, but they wouldn’t change his statement. “I told them that wasn't true; they shoulda talked to me.”

“I wanted the truth to know it was not true what they had did.  Shawn was not arguing with nobody. That guy was looking for somebody to kill.  He was a gang-banger, and he been back over here shooting since then,” she said.

Lawrence adopted her great-grandson Shawn when he was four because Lawrence's granddaughter gave up all three of her children. Lawrence says her granddaughter just didn't want to be bothered with raising them.

Lawrence has been spending a lot of time at the home of her son’s ex-wife. “She looks out for me all the time.  She like a daughter to me,” she said while sitting on the front stoop. “She always come and see about me, and like I fell and hurt myself, she fix me food and do, she's a good person, she helps anybody.”

The house is just across the street from her own home on the 6400 block of South Hoyne.

Justine Lawrence (WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)Lawrence’s power was recently cut off, which means no air-conditioning, so the 74-year-old spends time on the covered porch of this brick bungalow to escape the summer heat.

“He was kinda special kid,” she says while sifting through a folder. Filled with paper’s related to Shawn’s death, the folder contains a short newspaper article, the death certificate, funeral and burial papers and school photos.

“When he was born, he was a premature, didn't weigh that much and he was kinda slow on some stuff –you know –learning. Cause he went to school and he did good for a while. Then after he got into high school he couldn't keep up and he kinda felt bad about that, but he wasn't no bad person.  You know, he wasn't like angry out here with this fighting and stuff.  He wasn't like that.”

This isn't the first time Lawrence has buried a loved one because of gun violence.

In 1990, her son, Albert Washington Jr., was shot in the chest and killed and left in the parking lot of a public housing project on Chicago's South Side.

The murder didn’t get much more attention than Shawn's death. Lawrence said if they had had a march, or if the preacher had come out after Shawn's recent murder, then it may have gotten some press coverage.

“Even dogs get coverage,” she said referring to a recent news event.

“Three weeks ago a little boy had a puppy and he had autism, and this dog was helping him out and somebody stole the dog.  I wanted, I prayed for them to get that little boy his dog back cause it was sad, you know?  He had got used to this dog, they was trained special for this type of condition this little boy had, so that little boy, you know he didn't know no better so he missed his little puppy.  Finally they caught up with who took the dog and they got his same little puppy back.  So that was very important.  So if a dog can get coverage, why my, a human can't get coverage?”

Matt O'Connor, the Chicago Tribune’s editor of the courts and crime coverage, tried to explain the coverage of the deaths.

“What do we have in Chicago, like 450 murders a year at this point?  News is, you know, something unusual.  I mean, you just inherently, when you have that many murders, at least when we're talking about the newspaper, we can't cover every one of them.”

Sitting on the fourth floor newsroom at Tribune Tower, O’Connor explained how editorial decisions get made at the Tribune. And the paper is not alone in their coverage.  WBEZ usually doesn’t cover individual murders.

One of the striking things about Toronto is that murder is a big deal and makes the papers.

And it was a combination of media coverage and an outraged public that forced city leaders to address gun violence more vigorously in recent years.

O'Connor says the Tribune covers every murder online, but to make the print edition, there needs to be something unusual.

“You know we look for young victims.  Recently we had like an 87-year-old man shot on his front porch.  Doesn't even have to be a murder, sometimes it can just be a shooting that catches our eye.  But again, it's just, we're looking for something newsworthy about that individual story or maybe something broader that it shows us.”The Chicago Tribune's Matt O'Connor (WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)

O'Connor says they try to be analytical in their coverage. He says they stay away from sensational adage: “if it bleeds it leads."

He says they don't have the staff to cover every murder in-depth, and he says there's always some competition for news space in the paper in general, and page one in particular.

“We don't want all crime, you know, because that wouldn't be an accurate portrayal of Chicago.  Business is trying to get on the front page, national, foreign, sports in a way, so there's all these competing interests.”

Back in Englewood, Shawn Carter's great-grandmother she says Shawn's killer later shot up their corner when kids and families were outside on their front porches.

She's had some contact with the detectives working Shawn's case and says she thinks Shawn's killer got arrested for shooting a little girl.

“I found out he was locked up, police say he was locked up.  But the detective he thought he'd never get charged with Shawn's murder,” she said.

Lawrence says that's because the boy who was with Shawn when he was killed refused to point out the killer in a police lineup. She figures he's too scared to do it.

Whatever the case is, the violence continues in Englewood.

A couple weeks ago, on July 14, a man who lived one block from Lawrence was shot and killed around the corner.

The Tribune ran a short news item on 30-year-old: Walter Brown.

They also did a short story on Gartania Prince, 24, of the 6100 block of South Wabash.

He was shot and killed that night, too.

--Bill Healy contributed to this report.

Support for reporting on gun violence comes from a grant from John Jay College with the Joyce and David Bohnett foundations.
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