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Names of victims fill church's 'murder board'

  • Story Highlights
  • Father Bill Terry aims to raise awareness of victims of New Orleans' violent crime
  • The plastic board hangs outside his church on the edge of the French Quarter
  • The city had the nation's highest murder rate in 2006; it could repeat in 2007
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Randi Kaye and Jason White
CNN
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Father Bill Terry of St. Anna's Episcopal Church in New Orleans wants everyone to know what's happening in New Orleans: too many murders with too few people held accountable.

Murder

The "murder board" records the names of murder victims in New Orleans.

He keeps track of the slayings on what he calls the "murder board," a plastic board that hangs outside his church. He started listing murder victims earlier this year to humanize the headlines.

At first, the names were neatly typed by a printer. But as the killings continued at a rampant pace, he says, he resorted to adding victims' names by hand with permanent marker.

"Numbers are very easy to deal with emotionally. When it becomes a human being, then we start to personalize and it's harder to deal with. I want people to squirm. I want people to feel uncomfortable about the murders going on in the city," Father Bill told CNN.

In the first 29 days of this month alone, the city witnessed 27 killings, according to the New Orleans Police Department. So far in 2007, police say 137 people have been killed. That puts the city on pace for roughly 200 slayings this year. Photo See how the killings have affected New Orleans »

Last year, New Orleans had 161 murders, which translates into a murder rate of roughly 70 homicides per 100,000 people, the highest in the country, according to FBI crime statistics and population data. Gary, Indiana, was the next most deadly city, with 48 murders per 100,000 people.

By comparison, New York City's murder rate in 2006 was 7.3 per 100,000 people, according to FBI statistics.

"You have these cities you assume to be violent, and New Orleans is two or three times worse," said Peter Scharf, director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice at the University of New Orleans.

Scharf said the widespread notion that Hurricane Katrina somehow caused the murder rate to spike in New Orleans is not the full story. "Before the hurricane, the murder rate was ascending. The wheels were coming off at that point," he said.

Like many cities across the United States, New Orleans' murder rate peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It hit a low in 1999, but since then, the murder rate has more than doubled, according to Scharf.

Every week, Father Bill updates the "murder board": date, name, age, gender and manner of death. "Murder Victims, 2007," it says at the top, along with a quote from Psalm 46: "God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble." Video Watch as Father Bill writes another name on the board »

The church sits in a neighborhood called Treme on the edge of the French Quarter; it's a highly visible location that is heavily trafficked by pedestrians and cars. Father Bill said the board makes a strong impression on those who pass by it.

"There's a moment of silence; there's a sense of awe; there's almost an epiphany experience for most people that see it. They look at the 'murder board' and you can see crystallizing ... the realization that these are human beings and that we are literally in a holocaust, we are slaughtering human beings. It's very transforming," he said.

Father Bill hopes his message reaches the city's leaders, too. Every Monday, Father Bill has red roses delivered to Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Warren Riley -- a single rose for each death that weekend.

"He sends those roses I guess as a reminder," Riley said. "Certainly I can appreciate him doing that, but I'm more aware of our crime problem than anyone in the city."

Riley said he believes you can't police your way out of crime. The city's youth need to get out of the mindset that violence is the only way to solve a dispute, he said. Back in January, Nagin promised to make lowering the murder rate a top priority. In the face of ongoing violence, Nagin told CNN recently he is doing all he can.

"Everything is being done, from more resources, more dollars, more manpower, more police officers. We've got the federal government involved," he said.

Despite these efforts, violence in New Orleans shows no sign of slowing down. Scharf, the criminologist, believes city leaders should shoulder some blame for not stopping violent crimes.

"It's the capacity of the police and the district attorney and the courts. They are not in the mainstream of their professions. Even worse, they don't work together. They pee on each other's legs," he said.

Although the city has witnessed hundreds of murders over the two years since Katrina, the district attorney's office has won just three murder convictions since January of 2006. This is partly because murder convictions in New Orleans take two years on average, according to the DA's office.

"I am not going to take the blame for all the sins of the criminal justice system," District Attorney Eddie Jordan told CNN last month. "Certainly we have our shortcomings, but we're working on our shortcomings."

Before Father Bill became a minister, he worked in the insurance industry. But 10 years ago, he suffered an unbearable loss that forced him to take stock of his life. His 18-year-old daughter, Tonya, committed suicide. She had been diagnosed bipolar but was not taking medication. A neighbor called to tell him Tonya had shot herself.

"Because of the loss of my daughter, there is an affinity for loss, especially for younger people. As a parent, I grieve with parents who lost their children," he says.

One unanticipated outcome of the "murder board" is that Father Bill now finds himself counseling the parents of those who've been killed. One mother, he says, called him to thank him for remembering her son. She told him she thought nobody cared.

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"This was a particularly humbling experience," he says. "For someone to trust you enough to say you remembered my son is daunting at the very least. ... It's by the grace of God that we just have conversation."

Father Bill doesn't have any faith the killing will end anytime soon. He is already making plans to hang another "murder board" next year. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Belinda Hernandez contributed to this report.

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