Karen Heller: Philadelphia crime - as common as the flu

Posted: May 12, 2010

This week, I found myself, yet again, in the jury-selection room of the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center. I enjoy being a juror and find the experience illuminating, a good thing since I'm called almost every other year, apparently on the preferred mailing list.

When we reached the assigned courtroom, the judge polled the panel of 40 prospective jurors as to our ability to serve. We were asked the common question, "Have you or anyone close to you ever been a victim of a crime?"

You know where this is going.

The response was unanimous, the crimes ranging from car theft to witnessing a murder. The litany was cruel - molestation, burglary, robbery, assault - delivered by juror after juror as calmly as a deli order.

We were all victims, most of us more than once, seasoned casualties of crime.

"Have you or anyone close to you been an eyewitness to a crime?"

You know what happened. Again, all of us.

The responses were stunning, and then again not, played out repeatedly during the 1,000 annual criminal jury trials held yearly in the Court of Common Pleas.

Crime has become as common as the flu. Everyone, at some point, is infected. Which creates a true jury of a victim's peers, who have experienced the slow, dulling process of the criminal justice system, not merely the glossy television procedurals with the requisite last-minute twist.

Stephanie Mayweather serves as executive director of the East Division of Crime Victim Services, assisting 7,200 victims last year in the Kensington, Port Richmond, and Juniata neighborhoods, one of seven divisions in the city.

"For 13 years, I've led workshops where I ask people to stand up if they or someone close to them has been a victim of violent crime," says Mayweather, who will earn a doctorate in law and policy this year. "And in all those 13 years, only one person did not stand up. 'Where have you been? Have you been living in a bubble?' I asked."

Having a jury of victims is the rule, not the exception, officials in the criminal justice system tell me. "I'm inclined to disbelieve people who say they haven't been a victim. I tend to think that person is lying," one judge tells me. "I'll ask, 'I just want to make sure that during your whole life as a Philadelphia resident you have never, ever been a victim of a crime, nor has anyone close to you?' Then I'll say, 'Well, you certainly are one of the lucky ones.' "

There were 85,546 crimes reported in Philadelphia last year, though rape, abuse, and domestic violence are vastly underreported.

When Benjamin Lerner served as chief of the Philadelphia Defender Association from 1975 to 1990, "we had lots of discussions focused about whether you should stay away from someone as a juror who had been a victim of a crime." Today, Judge Lerner says that's not an option in courtrooms. It would be like looking for jurors without a neck.

"This isn't unusual for Philadelphia," Lerner says. "This is an open-ended question about the types of crimes, about how close a person is to you, and the amount of time that's passed."

Which is true. Our car was stolen in 1993, one of almost 24,000 taken that year, when the Club was a necessity, though not a deterrent. The defeat of chop shops is one of the city's victories in fighting crime; last year, only 7,400 vehicles were stolen.

I was mugged in 1995, blocks from our house. The assailant was unarmed, later caught and convicted - which seems like nothing, barely worth mentioning, compared with the juror who said her best friend was gunned down last week in an attempted murder.

Then again, I was pregnant when I was robbed. Anything could have happened, to me or my unborn daughter.

Much is made of our culture of victimhood, people asking for special dispensation without being necessarily deserving. And it's true: Too many people don't believe they're accountable for their actions and their failures, and claim society owes them.

But much less is made of true victims, people who have been unwilling, unwitting casualties of crime with scars and prejudices that can last indefinitely.

Last year, the Philadelphia district attorney's victim/witness services unit assisted 28,000 individuals. "We try to empower them with information at every stage of their case," says director Tami Levin. "We're the liaison between the victim and witness in the system. We listen to people, explain. We hold their hands, literally and figuratively."

On average, each coordinator assists almost 1,000 victims. That's a lot of hands to hold.

"I always say that I would be happy to be out of a job," Levin says. Even with some crime statistics dropping, new victims are created every day.

How does this affect people's attitudes about living in the city? Will they stay in Philadelphia, or move to a suburb where the odds of being a victim are substantially lower?

During the course of my reporting, talking to judges, lawyers and case workers, I asked everyone the same question posed to me as a prospective juror: Have you or anyone close to you been a victim of a crime?

But then you know the answer.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-0854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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