KEVIN LEININGER: The dead can’t speak, so family members are challenging the justice system on their behalf

Relatives hold photos of deceased loved ones they say have been overlooked by the local criminal justice system. Top row, from left, are David Miller and Amy Davis (Spencer Smith); Troy McCann (Codi McCann) ; Jamar Porter and Shauntel Lewis (Edward Campbell). Front row, from left, are Kendall White (Dontay White); Stacey Davis (Codi McCann); Tina Clark (Madison Clark) and Oprah Scott (Edward Campbell). (Photo by Lisa Esquivel Long of The News-Sentinel.com)
Tennille-Walker Bright, whose 14-year-old son Nicholaus Scroggins was shot and killed in 2016, speaks to the "#Flip This City" rally Saturday. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel.com)
Karen Richards
Kevin Leininger

They are united by a grief no one should have to endure, and by resentment and rage directed at the perceived indifference of the system that has failed to temper their pain with justice for those who caused it.

But although these relatives and friends of people killed in Fort Wayne undeniably have been victimized, there are not content to be passive victims. They are fighting back, and that will ultimately be a good thing even if misperceptions occasionally complicate short-term progress.

Their fledgling campaign for a more-responsive criminal justice system was on display Saturday when about 100 people attended the “#Flip This City” meeting at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, but the seeds of the movement have been planted by every violent death, and watered by what organizers see as a lack of conviction — in more ways than one.

I met with nine of the movement’s members last month, and although their stories contained unique details their theme was consistent: The Fort Wayne Police and Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards aren’t doing enough to investigate and punish their loved ones’ deaths.

“We know who shot Codi,” said Stacey Davis, whose son 22-year old son was killed in December 2016 in the 2200 block of California Avenue. Davis said she has had to do detective work for herself because the initial police investigation was inadequate. Despite the evidence, she said, no charges have been filed.

“The entire system is broken. The relationship between the police and prosecutor appears to be adversarial at best, the crime lab is too backlogged . . . Justice that is not swift is no deterrent,” she said.

“We know who shot my son, and there were two others in the car that ID the person that got into the car that night . . . but I’m told over and over, ‘It’s not good enough,’ or (the detective) can’t make him come in and talk,” agreed Kendall White, whose 17-year-old son Dontay was shot and killed in May 2016 on Brickshire Parkway. The witnesses are willing to testify, she said, and failure to prosecute “shows (teens) they can’t get justice for a friend (and) that you can kill someone and get away with it.”

“The frustrating thing is that (police and prosecutors) don’t use the tools they have properly, then they make you feel like a criminal (for asking questions),” said David Miller, whose 20-year-old grandson Spencer Smith was shot and killed outside the East Central Towers last summer.

Oprah Porter’s brother, 39-year-old Edward Campbell, was killed in the 900 block of West Washington Boulevard last August as he sat in his wheelchair. “He was under a camera, and I was approached by people at the scene who wanted to tell me what happened. (Police) aren’t talking to enough people,” she insisted.

There was much more, but you get the picture. Richards, however, denies the criminal justice system is either incompetent or uncaring. Although she said she can’t discuss specifics in pending cases, Richards said what grieving family members “know” often turns out to be untrue. Tina Clark, for example, passionately believes the evidence suggests her daughter Madison was murdered in 2016, but Richards just as firmly defends the official finding of suicide in part because notes to that effect were found.

Richards acknowledged police investigators are sometimes overwhelmed but said the public could help by being more willing to cooperate. “We need to change the sentiment about ‘snitching.’ It’s worse now than it’s ever been,” she said. Richards also points out her duty to bring charges only when she has a reasonable belief of guilt and expectation of a conviction, since an acquittal would make it impossible to try again should more evidence surface.

Still, the statistics could and should be better. Convictions have been achieved in 22 percent of the 50 homicides in 2016, with 16 percent pending, 12 percent considered closed, 18 percent under review and no suspects in 32 percent. Of 43 homicides last year, there has been one conviction, seven are closed, seven cases pending, two under review and 26 have not yet been submitted to her office. “There’s a good possibility we will solve the Campbell case,” she said.

I don’t believe Richards and the police are indifferent to the families’ concerns, but there’s no doubting the relatives’ sincerity. The tears shed during our meeting were genuine; the pain expressed all too real. Clark and Davis said they often wish for the peace death would bring.

Moving forward, though, the movement must decide whether its mission is to improve the system or simply to replace Richards, a Republican who will seek re-election this year to an office she’s held since 2003. Davis said Richards wasn’t invited to Saturday’s event because the group simply “wanted to get its message out,” but Richards and much of her staff attended anyway. It was a smart move politically, of course, but also belies the notion Richards simply doesn’t care. Also there Saturday was former Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike Loomis, who challenged Richards in 2014 and may do so again this year.

Loomis has championed the use of grand juries, which have the power to compel reluctant witnesses to appear, if not testify. Many of the family members believe Richards should make use of them, and so do I. But no matter what happens in November, Richards will remain in office for at least the next several months and positive momentum can be assured only by maintaining open and respectful lines of communication, regardless of who occupies the prosecutor’s office.

That’s more likely than ever now that these “victims” have vowed to remain silent no longer.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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