An article in the Los Angeles Times caught my eye this morning (“Trial's End Won't Be a Salve for Their Pain,” December 7, 2004) and although I don’t normally write a commentary about one specific newspaper story, I’ll make an exception. This is a tragedy to beat all tragedies. It is a story about how a woman in Inglewood lost three sons in a matter of days.
It is a story that is not all that uncommon inside the black ghettoes of America. In this case it occurred in the southern part of Los Angeles, in Inglewood, in an area plagued by gang violence during the past several decades. This part of LA is also part of a somewhat larger terrain known as “South Central.” Police estimate that there are several dozen gangs and hundreds of gang members, although the terms “gang” and “gang member” often defy precise definitions. Gang-related homicides have been on the rise in this area for the past several years, as we noted in our book about the subject (Youth Gangs in American Society). In this book we also noted that homicides committed by gang members are more likely to be committed on the streets, with the use of guns, with a greater number of participants, to involve victims with no prior contact with their assailants and where both the suspects and the victims are considerably younger. None of the three brothers who were killed had anything to do with gangs and had no prior record. Apparently they were innocent victims of battle over “turf” and mistaken identities.
This case began when 21-year-old Christopher Florence, who worked as a receiving clerk at Neiman Marcus, went out on a date and made a wrong turn down a one-way street. As the Times story notes, “A man at the end of the block, mistaking him for a rival gang member, aimed a 9-millimeter handgun at him and pulled the trigger.”
Then two nights later, a woman names Nicole called and said she had information about the killing. Two of the victim’s brothers arranged a meeting, and even though the police warned them to let them handle it, they went anyway. They went for a meeting in an area in Inglewood apparently controlled by a gang known as the “Crenshaw Mafia.” As they were driving toward the meeting, a car drove by and a man leaned out the window and fired a 9-millimeter handgun six times, killing the two brothers.
The trial of Inglewood gang member Craigen Armstrong has come to an end and he is soon to be sentenced to death for the killings of all three brothers. However, for the mother and her one surviving son, the end of this trial will not bring any closure. “There is no pill, no therapy, nothing anybody can say or do to make us feel better,” Mrs. Florence said.
The family of the slain brothers was close. They took care of one another as best they could after the father died from multiple sclerosis a few years before. All the brothers except one (who was in high school) worked full-time, something that is a bit unusual in South Central, as so many families have been torn apart by a changing labor market.
According to police, about 40% of the 81 homicides that have occurred in Inglewood during the last three years have yet to be solved. The toughest cases to solve are gang killings, which constitute about half of all the homicides in this city. The problem is getting people to testify and also the problem of trying to get good eye-witnesses. After all, when shots are being fired (an all-too-common occurrence in some neighborhoods) what are most people doing, other than ducking or running for cover. Only the brave (or stupid) are going to stand around and take notes!
In this case, the perpetrator had been involved in an argument at a nearby 7-Eleven store just before the shootings. Police showed his photograph to two men who were with the two brothers that had been gunned down while driving toward the meeting. Police eventually found the murder weapon in a car registered to the offender's stepfather. They also found a sweatshirt with gun residue in his house. Even this was not enough and it took testimony from the offender’s ex-girlfriend to seal the case.
During the trial the defendant claimed he was shooting in self-defense, as he thought a rival gang member was heading his way. The jurors did not believe him, but it is a common explanation in gang territories, where rival gangs are not unlike rival nations, such as the Palestinians and Israelis.
After the trial ended the mother said “We wanted justice, and we got it.” The offender “didn't only kill my three sons,” she said. “He killed Brian [her only surviving son] and me too.”
Another tale that is all too common in the nation’s inner-cities. There is no closure and another gang member will spend the remainder of his life in prison, in this case on death row. However, like baseball’s “farm system,” another “player” in this deadly game of gang rivalry will take his place. Soon another family will be shattered. They too will get no closure.