The Homicide Report

by Brendan I. Koerner

This should probably go without saying, but I've just been floored by the consistent awesomeness of Ta-Nehisi's commentariat this week. I could've spent all day yesterday wading through the sharp responses to my Jack London post, any number of which deserved to be pulled up to the blog's front page. To all who've seen fit to take a few precious minutes to share their thoughts, please accept the only reward I can presently offer: my sincerest gratitude.

But the flood of great comments got me thinking about the way that one of my favorite online experiments, The Los Angeles Times' Homicide Report, has evolved over the years. For those unfamiliar with the blog, it's essentially a compendium of each and every homicide that takes place in Los Angeles County. Most of the entries are incredibly brief--just a paragraph, maybe two, with information regarding the killing's location, the victim's age and race, and any available description of the perpetrators' modus operandi and motive. The blog is addictive because of the patterns that emerge over time--you get a real sense of the immensity of the tragedy, as well as the rank pettiness that lurks behind the majority of these soul-shattering crimes.

Interestingly, the Homicide Report decided to permit comments--a perilous choice, given the incredibly sensitive nature of its subject matter. In the beginning, these comments were largely benign, consisting almost exclusively of sympathetic shout-outs from friends and family. But over time, I've noted a darker strain creeping in. The example that sticks with me is the entry for Akop Akopyan, a young man who was shot to death in March 2007. No one was ever arrested in connection with the murder.

The comments section was almost entirely quiet for over three years, until this appeared this past April 6:

The mastermind of my brother's murder has FALLEN. What goes around-comes around.

That was immediately followed by this:

Axper jan 3 exactly three years later, justice has been served, although nothing will bring you back, but the devil himself was shot and killed a few days ago...we miss you crazy axper jan, til this day we still don't understand how he could do this to you, your own flesh and blood...but he got his own, he got what he deserved as well...eye for an eye...right now all we're praying for is to see you on that great day...LOVE YOU

It didn't take much gumshoeing to figure out that these celebratory comments were about the murder of Hayk Yegnanyan, who was shot to death while eating lunch in a restaurant, along with three others. (That case remains unsolved, too.) Further comments reveal that Akopyan's family pulled no punches in publicly blaming Yeganyan for arranging their beloved son/brother/cousin's murder.

I always get a slightly queasy feeling whenever people celebrate another human being's death, even though I understand the impulse perfectly well. The downside to living in a society of laws is that those responsible for terrible acts can, quite literally, get away with murder, simply because our system of justice is based on the notion of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. We're thus forced to accept that even when we know precisely who wronged us or our loved ones, those evildoers can still avoid legal punishment simply because they committed their crime skillfully. And when official justice is denied, the impetuous is to seek alternative forms of satisfaction.

The question, then, is what role public expressions of the revenge impulse can play in these dramas. There's a legal aspect, of course, in that we tread on thin ice when we wantonly toss around accusations of murder. But can forums like the Homicide Report's comments sections help people cope with their powerful emotions, which often include a sincere wish for violence to be met with violence? Or does publicly airing one's basest (albeit understandable) impulses inevitably cause the revenge cycle to spiral out of control?