When Viola Drath was found murdered in her Georgetown home in mid-August, the violent crime shocked the neighborhood.
But this is exactly the kind of story that Laura Amico deals with every day.
Amico is the editor and founder of Homicide Watch, a D.C.-centric website that is dedicated to building "one of the nation’s most comprehensive public resources on violent crime."
She and her husband Chris Amico combine primary source documents, social networking and original reporting to "track homicide cases from crime to conviction, building the area’s most complete public resource for the people who need it most: victim’s families, suspects’ families, and all others affected by violent crime in D.C."
Laura Amico recently took time to answer a few questions for Patch.
Patch: When you started Homicide Watch, did you feel like you were filling a void in the market?
Amico: I knew that as a D.C. resident, the crime coverage I was looking for wasn't there. For example, when I looked for information about crimes in my neighborhood I ended up bypassing traditional media and going instead to the police department, court and the listserves. Because I was a reporter, I was pretty savvy at finding information that I was looking for that wasn't being published regularly or was being published but was nearly impossible to find. What I didn't know was if there was an audience beyond me that was interested in complete and organized coverage of violent crime. It quickly became apparent that there was.
Patch: Is there a lack of in-depth criminal journalism in D.C.?
Amico: I think the problem is not a lack of in-depth coverage, but a problem of organization. With Homicide Watch, we found that there must be an organizing principle to our coverage, because people come back to the stories and pages not only again and again, but on their own time and for reasons that we don't necessarily know about. That's why we organized information and stories around three principals: victims, suspects and crimes. I know from how we see people moving around the site that this works. Families, friends and others return to victims' and suspects' pages long after the initial crime or court appearance, even when there hasn't been anything new to report for months. They come back because it's a place to connect with the story, connect with the event and connect with a community that has grown around a story. When I look at criminal justice reporting in D.C., the organizational principals that create those hubs for (and with) the community are what I see lacking.
Patch: We live in a city with a strong history of high-quality print journalism. What do you enjoy about working in a strictly digital platform?
Amico: I came from a very traditional print background and this was my first online project. There are a lot of things I love about print, but there's a lot that I like about what we are able to do online, too. First, the verbs that we use to describe online journalism are so much more active than print journalism: build, launch, deploy, post, link, moderate, comment, engage. There's a real sense of ownership in what I do. But what I love most of all is working within the community that has formed around Homicide Watch. In the newsroom, we would refer to our “readers,” but our Homicide Watch “readers” are so much more than that. They read, they comment, they discuss points of law, they support one another whether they are comforting the mother of a victim or the mother of a defendant. They show me again and again the humanity involved in each and every one of these cases. Their comments break my heart, and make my day. I feel honored to be able to host the space where they meet.
Patch: Are there any misconceptions about crime and homicide in the District?
Amico: Sure, but the misconceptions depend on who you're talking to. I like to point people to our map on Homicide Watch because that can be pretty eye-opening. For example, there have been more homicides in Adams Morgan this year than Brookland. Another one: I get asked all the time “what ever happened to that case from six months ago? Did he get a life sentence?” The reality is that from the time of arrest, the Grand Jury can take nine months to indict a case, then it can take nearly as long to get to trial. Right now, most judges are setting trial dates out to mid-2012. Then there's motive and cause: the percentage of homicides that are caused by drugs and drug deals is much smaller than I think many people think.
Patch: Does it become hard, over time, reporting story after story about murder and homicide? Do you ever feel like you become too close or emotionally involved with your subjects?
Amico: Surprising, not in the ways you might expect. I really find the work rewarding and when I meet families of victims and suspects, they tell me how they find the site really useful. It's truly community service journalism and it's really gratifying to have found a niche to do this work. I also shy away some from doing traditional interviews. As a traditional reporter, it was really important to, no matter what, get a quote. With Homicide Watch I've set the precedent that it's more important for people to come to me and talk when they are ready to. Immediately following a crime, or a court hearing, might not be the best time. I'd rather that they think about what they want to say, and then together we discuss the best way to get their statement out there. It might be a quote. It might be an interview. It might be a guest post that that person writes themselves.
Patch: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Amico: I love finding new ways to report, making the most of the new tools that are available and learning how to build community engagement around a very traditional newsroom beat. It's so rewarding to take something that journalists have been doing forever - reporting on crime - and find a way to do it that is more beneficial for both reporters and the community.