WASHINGTON, March 16, 2013 — Chicago earned the “Murder Capital” title for 2012. The Windy City, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, logged 500 murders for the year. This number was later marked down to 499 when it was determined that one death was not decidedly a murder. Now, in 2013, Chicago is already outpacing itself.
As I write this story, in fact, a heinous and reprehensible story comes in over the background radio. A six-month-old baby girl, having her diaper changed by her father in the backseat of a car, is shot five times. She is dead, murdered.
For years, Washington, D.C., held this unenviable title, “The Murder Capital.” The term was, in fact, coined for the capital city by Newsweek magazine as far back as June of 1941. The double meaning of the word “capital” provided the publication a bold headline caption.
For decades, violent crime and murder were sadly a taken-for-granted part of the fabric of life in the nation’s capital. This was especially true of the 1980s and 90s. In the 90s, in fact, D.C. racked up about 500 homicides a year.
I remember when Mayor Marion Barry boasted: “Outside of the killings, [Washington] has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”
I took the opportunity to parody his absurd statement in The Washington Post’s “Style Invitational” by writing a make-believe city welcoming sign: “This capital city/Lives up to its billing/Our crime rate is low/Except for the killing.” [June 27, 1999]
In 2012, however, Washington got off the Most Dangerous Cities Top Ten List, dropping to 16th place.
There was nothing funny Monday, however, when a hail of bullets rang out on our city streets, leaving 13 young people wounded by drive-by gunmen. One victim remains in critical condition.
At this point, the shootings qualify as criminal violence; and, as Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier was quick to point out, “We have mostly gunshot wounds, to the legs, extremities, hands, some graze wounds.” Nothing serious, “mostly.” Therefore the story does not yet qualify for the city’s homicide toll.
You may wonder what had precipitated Newsweek’s scurrilous 1941 labeling of Washington as the “Murder Capital.” It was the month-old unsolved crime of a young government worker.
Jesse Elizabeth Strieff had been expecting her boy friend for to dinner, when the young woman, a 23-year-old War Department clerk, simply ran out of her apartment on 19th Street NW to buy a quarter pound stick of butter at a nearby grocery store.
Hours later her naked body was found in a private garage near Dupont Circle. The young graduate of Drake University had been raped and strangled to death.
There followed the usual ramifications. Two senators from her home state of Iowa demanded a Congressional investigation. The Department of Justice was inundated with calls to intervene and halt what they described as “Washington’s outrageous condition.”
Congressman Michael Kennedy of New York called for detachments of soldiers and sailors to be deployed to patrol Washington streets in protection of “the poor working girl.”
The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, got into it, using her weekly radio program to offer safety tips to the young women of Washington.
Not content with indicting D.C. as a “Murder Capital,” Newsweek also impugned the city’s manner of exacting justice. It reported: “The Washington Police Department…is not one force but five: the Metropolitan Police, the Capitol Police, the White House Police, the Park Police, and the Federal Building Police. No two of which cooperate.”
The piece went on to cite the favorable chances for a crime perpetrator in the capital’s criminal justice system. “Those who commit felonies have a 2-to-1 chance that no one will be arrested; 6-to-1 that no one will be indicted; 10-to-1 that no one will be convicted; and 15-to-1 that no jail sentence will be served.”
Newsweek’s accusations were exacerbated by the fact that few men were questioned and no one ever charged with Jesse Elizabeth Strieff’s rape and murder.
Through the years, there have been, of course, periodic shake-ups in the D.C. police department. Usually after a particularly heinous murder. One such shake-up came in the aftermath of the brutal murders of the three young employees in the Wisconsin Avenue Starbucks of Georgetown over the Fourth of July weekend of 1997.
For now, however, they express concern about the likelihood of retaliation by the victims, their families and friends.
Police shake-up or not, life will go on in the nation’s capital. So will murder. And so will unsolved murders.
Meanwhile, Washington’s chief commodity, blame, will continue to bounce about like the proverbial pinball, most likely ending in a “tilt.”
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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