KEVIN LEININGER: Does split in victims-families movement show value of cooperation? Let’s hope so

Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards and Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander may be willing to look at ways to induce more cooperation from potential witnesses. (News-Sentinel file photo)
David Miller holds a photo of his late grandson, Spencer Smith. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Kevin Leininger

When David Miller and eight other relatives of homicide victims visited The News-Sentinel newsroom several weeks ago, they were united by their grief, their anger and their mission: to find and punish the killers.

When the resulting “Flip This City” group demanded Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards’ resignation last month, however, Miller knew he’d have to chart his own path — a path that has led him to organize yet another anti-crime community meeting planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Well of Fort Wayne church at 1315 S. Hanna St.

“I’ve been gone from that (Flip This City) group. I’m not a political person. I want justice for Spencer, not a political movement,” said Miller, whose 20-year-old grandson, Spencer Smith, became the 22nd homicide victim of 2017 when he was shot several times outside the East Central Towers that August in a crime that remains unsolved.

Flip This City members have every right to participate in the political process, of course, but the fact that the Republican Richards has been in office since 2003 and is currently unopposed in her bid for re-election indicates she will have the job past Dec. 31. That means grieving family members — like it or not — will be best served by enlisting her as an ally, not by gratuitously painting her as an adversary by demanding a resignation no one can reasonably expect.

This cooperative approach may in fact already be bearing fruit. Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander said Richards will probably speak at the event, and while some of her points have been made previously in response to Flip This City — the need for community cooperation and solid evidence before filing charges, for example — he said Richards may also show a new willingness to address claims her office has not done enough to encourage witnesses to provide testimony needed to win convictions.

McAlexander said the office has provided what some might call “witness protection” in the past by paying for airfare, hotels or other related expenses on a case by case basis. “We’ve paid for it out of various accounts but we don’t talk about it,” he said.

Now, however, McAlexander and possibly Richards are not only talking about it but may be prepared to act as well. McAlexander said the office may expand its witness program by earmarking $10,000 in funds seized in drug deals, and if the publicity causes even more witnesses to come forward, Richards could seek permanent funding from County Council.

Critics have also suggested Richards could compel testimony by creating a grand jury with subpoena power — a potentially useful tool she has so far declined to use. As Richards has previously, McAlexander cautioned that grand juries can only compel people to appear but cannot force them to talk. And if immunity is granted in exchange for testimony, prosecutors run the risk of shielding some of the very people who otherwise might face charges.

Even so, McAlexander signaled a willingness to at least consider it.

“It’s a crapshoot,” he said. “But we’ll look at all options.”

Miller has invited police leadership and other officials to Saturday’s event, and hopes to fill the church with people who have been directly affected by violence or simply want to stop it. What if anything will come from this is anybody’s guess, and if talk, rallies and marches alone could prevent crime Fort Wayne would have been murder-free years ago. But Miller’s approach is nevertheless welcome because, as he said, the city’s growing victims-rights movement should be most concerned with achieving justice, not political scalps.

That’s not to say Flip This City is necessarily wrong to target the incumbent prosecutor. If members believe Richards is not doing her job, they should support a better alternative. But that’s precisely the point: Right now there isn’t one, and having flatly rejected the laughable demand for her resignation Richards will be the prosecutor for at least the next 10 months no matter what happens in November.

Richards has said she remains ready to work with Flip This City members, but Miller seems to understand something some of Richards’ critics may not: Most of us are just naturally more willing to work with people who are willing to work with us. Or, as Miller put it: “I don’t agree with everything (Richards) has done. But she’s a human being.”

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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