Issues & Ideas

July 12, 2008

Bound in grief as violence continues

In a small Miami-Dade courtroom, Arleen White stared at the man who killed her 15-year-old son, Anthony, and spoke of her pain -- and her gratitude to God:

In a small Miami-Dade courtroom, Arleen White stared at the man who killed her 15-year-old son, Anthony, and spoke of her pain -- and her gratitude to God:

''I can't even function. I can't even look people in the face sometimes because I'm full of tears,'' she said.

And yet, ''I give God thanks for this day,'' she said. ``Because when this is all over . . . I ain't got to worry about nobody gunning down my boy in the street because you already did that.''

Behind White were her husband, family members and a small group of new friends -- black men and women, all, who understood better than anyone else in the courtroom the complex mix of pain and frustration in her words.

They have all lost children to homicides in Miami-Dade. And they have become ''a club that nobody, no parent, wants to be part of,'' according to Queen Brown. Brown became part of the group -- and an antiviolence radio-show host -- after her youngest son, Eviton, was killed in 2006 at age 24.

''My son was the 200th homicide victim'' of that year, Brown said.

Police statistics indicate that overall crime hasn't increased very much in Miami-Dade County since 2003 -- but homicides involving blacks age 24 and under have been steadily climbing.

They jumped from 47 in 2003 to 76 in 2007, according to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office. This year, 50 young blacks have been killed as of June 28.

These parents don't need to see the statistics to know there's a problem. Their friendships are the result of shared, horrific tragedies. One bereaved parent reached out to another, and the group grew from there.

The parents who have come together in this club with no name spend their time organizing and attending antiviolence rallies. They help one another remember their loved ones on certain milestone dates, such as birthdays or death anniversaries.

And because they believe the problem isn't confined to the streets, they also show up at court hearings on occasion.

Several of the group members showed up at the August 2007 hearing where Arleen White spoke to her son's killer. Queen Brown spoke of the young people who have been charged in the violence.

''We have law enforcement, homicide working so hard to put the pieces together to bring them into the system,'' she said. ``We have the corrections department that keeps them incarcerated. But for some reason they have a revolving door that they get out when they come in here. And I can't quite understand it.''

She and the other parents were particularly concerned that day: Prosecutors and defense attorneys had agreed to a deal in which the suspect in Anthony White's slaying, Jason Robert Hall, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. In return, Hall was sentenced to the time he had already served in jail, 4 ½ years.

Anthony was shot when he opened the door of the family's small duplex in Little Haiti. A group of men entered the house and demanded money and ''dope.'' White told authorities she gave one of the men $760 from a jacket she wore the day before and a small container of marijuana stored on a kitchen shelf.

Hall confessed to being the shooter, but he said the gun fired accidentally. He was just 14 at the time and was charged with second-degree murder. He later recanted his statement to police, claiming he was coerced. In time, prosecutors became convinced that evidence in the case was compromised -- and that winning a ''guilty'' verdict was unlikely.

Hall was released after the hearing. White was enraged.

``I thought they would have given him probation or something. I just didn't expect them to say he could go.''




The parents who rallied around White in court that day are Miami-Dade residents who lead working-class or middle-class lives. Of the core group of four women and two men, three live in neighborhoods that were considered to be safe from urban violence. Three live in inner-city neighborhoods.

All say they taught their children to avoid trouble.

All say they raised their children to study in school, to be good to others and to grow up self-sufficient and ready to give back to their community.

Now, their dreams for their children shattered, the parents visit other families whose children have been killed -- cases they learn about from newscasts or through word of mouth.

The membership is informal; some participate more than others, depending on their work schedules and whether they are emotionally ready to deal with grief. So far, they have reached out to about 20 families.

Although White is the youngest parent, she is the group's elder stateswoman. Anthony died in 2003. The others died in 2006 and 2007.

Some of the parents, like Brown and David Jenkins, have shared some of their grief publicly. Most have not. David Jenkins' daughter, 9-year-old Sherdavia, died from gunfire in 2006 while playing on the sidewalk near her home in Liberty City's Liberty Square public housing project.

The parents say they feel a kinship with one another.

Deirdre Anderson of Miami Gardens gets a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach when she remembers that her only son, James ''J.T.'' Anderson, never got to attend a prom or graduate from Miami Northwestern High. James was 16 when he was killed in a drive-by shooting near his home in 2006. Two other young men who were with James escaped injury.

Miami-Dade police arrested Richard H. Jenkins, now 21, and charged him with first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder.

Jenkins pleaded not guilty and is in jail awaiting trial. His defense attorney, Kenneth White, declined to comment.

''They leave us with nothing,'' Anderson said of the killers. ``That hole, you have to live with. It's not a nice thing.''

For homicide victims' families, grieving is complicated by the unexpected and violent nature of the deaths, said Alesia Hawkins, a psychologist with the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. Hawkins does research and clinical work in African-American families affected by homicide in the North Charleston area.

With deaths resulting from illness or accidents, ''you don't have the intentionality that someone willfully murdered my child,'' she said.

Parents of murdered children grapple with a belief that people who have not lost a child so violently do not understand their pain. They can become withdrawn and isolate themselves because they believe no one else understands, Hawkins said.

Further complicating their lives are experiences alien to them -- having to face the police, dealing with things like autopsies, and navigating through a maze of court hearings, trials and pleadings.

''It's harder to get through the day. I guess I'm living off adrenaline,'' said Jeffery Johnson Sr. His son, Jeffery Jr., was an honors student who was shot to death May 21, 2006, in Liberty City in a dispute over who had the best tricked-out car. The alleged shooter, Antwan Grace, 23, was charged with second-degree murder in that crime. He pleaded not guilty.

Grace's attorney, Spencer West, said his client ``didn't have anything to do with the shooting. It's a case of the police having arrested the wrong man for this crime.''

Johnson, who belongs to the parents group, said coping was relatively easy at first. Subsequent months have been harder. He has grown weary of the antiviolence rallies and prayer vigils.

``The second year was harder than the first year. This year, it gets harder. Seems like it's supposed to get easier. But I don't see results in the crime. I see crime getting worse.''

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the second leading cause of death for young people age 10 to 24. It is the leading cause of death for African Americans in that age group.




The parents in the informal support group -- resolved to try to end the urban carnage -- are fixtures at antiviolence rallies. Sometimes they stand silently in clusters with other parents, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with images of their children. Other times they speak out.

After Deon and Rashawn Beneby, ages 21 and 22 respectively, were gunned down at a Liberty City housing project on April 17, Brown organized a candlelight vigil to remember the deceased and comfort family members.

She passed out candles and coaxed reluctant neighbors to join the small group that had gathered for prayer and reflection.

Nearby, Arleen White held a poster showing a drawing of a gun with the words ``Stop the violence.''

Miami-Dade police say no arrests have been made in the Beneby brothers' shootings. Detectives said they believe the brothers dealt drugs, robbed fast-food customers and helped kill rivals.

If nothing else, Brown and White say, their rallies and vigils are aimed at trying to raise young people's awareness about the violence -- and to point out that they can take other paths.

At the April vigil, young people recognized and hugged White. They were former middle- and high-school classmates of her deceased son. White thanked one young lady and asked about her life.

``Did you graduate from high school yet?''

''No, not yet'' the young woman said quietly, with a sheepish grin.

''You can still do it,'' said White, a hint of determination rose in her voice.

Said Brown: ``These kids don't have hope. We've got to give them hope.''




Recently, some moms embraced Trina Kancey, whose son, Samuel Brown, was killed last year while attending a graduation party at the Polish American Club. He was 16.

Several of the parents have pledged to go with Kancey to an upcoming court hearing in the case against LaBron Brown, who is charged with second-degree murder in the deaths of Samuel Brown and Michael Bradshaw Jr.

''We have to be there because there's strength in what you're going through,'' said Queen Brown. ``We have to be there for Trina. It's a scary thing.''

Queen Brown, Samuel Brown and LaBron Brown are not related.

Samuel Brown would have graduated from Norland High School last month. Mom mustered the courage to attend the ceremony June 12 at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables.

It was a measure of comfort for Kancey. Sam was her ''shining star'' who volunteered at the Miami Rescue Mission, visited the elderly and tutored underachieving students ``at such a young age. I just miss having him at home.''

Sam, the middle of five children, was the one who ran errands, walked to Sunday school with his baby brother, Jamari. He also was the one with the voracious appetite. ''Once he got into the kitchen, the food was gone,'' she chuckled.

Now Kancey struggles with having to cook less. ``I have a habit of cooking big meals. We don't need as much food now. Over the course of one day, everything changed.''

Kancey worries about the upcoming trial. Witnesses who initially stepped forward are backing off, prosecutors say, intimidated by a culture that discourages cooperation with law enforcement.

At a memorial service for the Polish American Club victims last month, prosecutor Gary Winston pleaded for witnesses to come forward. So did Kancey and Diane Walker Caine, mother of Michael Bradshaw Jr.

''It's up to us to make a difference as parents,'' Kancey said. ``My son was snatched from us, not just from me.''




Arleen White wishes she had taken her son's case to trial. Anthony's father, Gavin ''Daniel'' Tong, believes the case wasn't pursued because of their race and lifestyle.

Tong ran a Rastafarian health-food store in North Miami. As a leader in the Rastafarian religion, he smokes marijuana as part of the culture. He has been arrested a handful of times on misdemeanor drug charges. In each case, charges were dropped or adjudication was withheld.

Prosecutors say they didn't go to trial because a lot of the evidence was compromised.

Brenda Mezick, the assistant state attorney in charge of the case, said only two tire prints at the scene matched a suspected getaway car. A key witness, who could place Hall and another suspect in the car, died. And the lead crime-scene investigator was demoted for improper handling of evidence.

Also, Mezick said, of the nine family members in the house that night, only White could describe the suspect, whom she described as a black man in his early 20s -- at least six years older than the suspect.

Prosecutors warned White that under the circumstances, it would be hard to get a jury to convict someone so young.

''There was evidence to plead the case. But . . . at end of day, would the jury bring back a guilty verdict with this evidence? I didn't believe they would,'' Mezick said.

Mezick said she understood the parents' anger. ''Some cases there's evidence, and some cases there's not,'' she said.

``As angry as they are, Arleen knows I was working my tail off trying to find evidence, trying to get investigators assigned, trying to see if the city of Miami could do more. I held on and I tried.''

And now, it is up to White to hold on, and to try.

On March 21, White, Tong and their six children, with Anthony's friends, visited Fred Hunter's Hollywood Memorial Gardens to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Anthony's death. Most wore a memorial T-shirt.

The younger children helped White arrange red roses and white carnations in a vase. The group spent several minutes sitting on the ground near the grave in silence.

Then they stood around Anthony's grave. Tong recited the 23rd Psalm and led a prayer, ``Heal our wounds. Heal our broken hearts and answer our prayer.''

When the time came to leave, White winced. ''The hard part is always leaving. It's like you're leaving him out here,'' she said. ``Memories can't be erased, but it's such an injustice. Everything was taken away so fast.

``It's been a long journey, a real long journey.''

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