Monday, February 05, 2007

New Orleans: About two-thirds of murders go unsolved

Adam Nossiter:

There were 161 homicides in this city last year, and there have been 18 so far this year, making New Orleans by most measures the nation’s per capita murder capital, given its sharply reduced population. Many of the victims and the suspects are teenagers. About two-thirds of the deaths have gone unsolved: the killers, in many cases, continue to walk the streets and are likely to kill again, the police say.

Other cities have plenty of murders. But only in New Orleans has there been the uniquely poisoned set of circumstances that has led to this city’s position at the top of the homicide charts. Every phase of the killing cycle here unfolds under the dark star of dysfunction: the murderers’ brutalized childhoods, the often ineffectual police intervention, a dulled community response, and a tense relationship between the police and prosecutors that lets many cases slip through the cracks.

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation loosened the fragile social restraints even further, making the city perhaps more dangerous than ever.

The storm also pushed a teetering criminal justice system over the edge. The evidence in hundreds of criminal cases was lost, and the flood destroyed the police crime lab, which has not been rebuilt. Often, drugs cannot be tested at other locations before the deadline for bringing charges. Yet the police are trying to stop the violence by arresting more drug users and street dealers, many of whom are quickly released, spinning the jail door faster than ever and fueling the carnage.

In the Central City neighborhood last June, five teenagers in a sport utility vehicle were killed in a drug feud. The police said the 19-year-old suspect had been arrested 11 times in the previous 30 months. But he had been acquitted on an attempted murder charge, the district attorney’s office had dropped some of the other charges for lack of evidence, and he was out on bail on drug and gun charges at the time of the killings.

Last year, about 3,100 people who were arrested, mostly for drug offenses, were released from jail or their bail obligation when the deadlines passed for charges to be filed, records show. That was nearly three times the rate before the storm. More than 500 others were released in January alone, including one in a murder case and two arrested for attempted murder.

In some neighborhoods, people refer to “misdemeanor murders,” or “60-day murders,” the length of time suspects can be held without charges. The police superintendent, Warren J. Riley, often blames prosecutors for refusing other cases and the courts for letting violent suspects out on bail. Though Mr. Riley declined to be interviewed for this article, he recently told Gambit Weekly, a local newspaper, that he was tired of having to re-arrest the same people who had been let out of jail.

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