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Why Do We Kill?: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore [Paperback]

Stephen Janis , Kelvin Sewell

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Book Description

23 Jun 2011
Former Baltimore City homicide detective Kelvin Sewell has seen it all. Gang members burned alive; a baby unceremoniously stuffed into the ground by its own mother; a sex offender who killed a child in a delusional jealous rage. The constant grind of bearing witness to violent death has given Sewell an unprecedented perspective into the minds of killers. He sat in the Baltimore Police Department’s interview room with 14-year-old Devon Richardson as the teen tried to explain why he shot a woman he didn’t know in the back of the head. He watched the father of 17-year-old Nicole Edmonds cry over the corpse of his dead daughter, murdered for a cellphone. But now for the first time Sewell has decided to share the insights and the pain, the dehumanizing effects of crime and waves of psychic despair and social dysfunction in his groundbreaking book, Why Do We Kill? “I think people deserve to know the truth,” said Sewell, a 20-year veteran of Baltimore City’s police department. “They need to get a sense of why people kill in Baltimore. “I want people to see what we see as detectives,” he explained. “I think there are misconceptions about crime in Baltimore, and I hope this book will clear them up.” The book recounts some of the most notorious homicide cases in Baltimore in the past decade, all told from the perspective of the cop who worked them. Joining forces with Sewell is award-winning investigative reporter Stephen Janis, who covered City Hall for the now-defunct Baltimore Examiner and is founder of the award-winning news website Investigative Voice. “What makes this book different is the collaborative voice,” said Janis. “Kelvin would discuss his thoughts on the cases and I then tried to tell the story by adding the context that comes naturally with being a reporter.” Janis’s colleague at Investigative Voice, reporter and political scientist Alan Z. Forman, served as editor for the project. Janis is no stranger to the Baltimore crime scene, winning a string of prestigious awards for his crime reporting, including two consecutive Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association awards in Category A for his series on the murders of sex workers and his investigation into the high number of unsolved killings in Baltimore.

Product details

  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (23 Jun 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1463534809
  • ISBN-13: 978-1463534806
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 13.8 x 21.3 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,338,752 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

About the Authors STEPHEN JANIS is an award-winning reporter who publishes Investigative Voice, an online watchdog journalism website based in Baltimore Maryland. As a staff writer for the former Baltimore Examiner (and one of only a handful of reporters who worked at the paper for its entire existence) he won a Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association award in 2008 for investigative reporting on the high rate of unsolved murders in Baltimore. In 2009 he won an MDDC Press Association award for Best Series for his articles on the murders of prostitutes. As co-founder of the independent investigative website Investigative Voice, Janis’s work uncovering corruption and government waste in Baltimore City will be chronicled in the upcoming national documentary “Fit To Print.” The site has won worldwide critical acclaim for its unconventional presentation and hardnosed reporting and is read regularly by insiders in city government as well as the police department. Janis is the author of two novels, Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist and This Dream Called Death. In addition to reporting and directing content for Investigative Voice he currently teaches journalism at Towson University. KELVIN SEWELL is a 22-year veteran of the Baltimore City Police Department. A former narcotics officer tasked to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, he worked on major drug investigations for nearly a decade, later becoming a supervisor in the BPD’s Internal Affairs Division, where he led several high profile integrity operations. Sewell worked as a supervisor and investigator in the fabled Baltimore City Homicide Unit, working some of the most notorious cases in one of the most violent cities in the country. He attended Harvard Associates Forensic Science School and received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in criminology from Coppin State University. Following his retirement as a Baltimore homicide detective he took a job as Lieutenant in the Pocomoke City Police Department on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, where he currently continues to serve.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Memoir of a Baltimore Homicide Detective (Book Review) 6 July 2011
By William Hughes - Published on Amazon.com
"[He] was breathing when his body was doused with gasoline and set on fire. He was burned alive!" - Kelvin Sewell

How bad is the crime situation in Baltimore City? Leaving the grim statistics aside for the moment, it's so bad that I no longer watch the local TV newscast at 11 PM! (1) Who wants to go to bed with gory images of mindless violence dancing in their heads?

The mantra is always the same from the news reader--murder, mayhem, drugs, tears, blood and outrage! The only thing that changes are the names of the victims. Some are totally innocent, such as children and teenagers who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Enter Kelvin Sewell! He's a former homicide detective with 22 years of in-your-face experience with the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). Sewell, an African-American, has encountered it all--from the inside--like "in the box." That's "the room" at BPD headquarters, where suspects in a crime, and witnesses, too, are questioned by the cops. It's where Sewell would deflate the ego of a street-hardened thug by simply asking him: "Can you recite the alphabet?" He underscored, "not one" was able to do it!

In his compelling memoir, "Why Do We Kill?: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore," Sewell teams up with award-winning investigative reporter, Stephen Janis, to tell his uncompromising story from a down-at-the-crime-scene perspective. (2) In Baltimore, Sewell relates: "People kill because they're angry over a slight. Frustrated over a hard look. Pissed off because somebody talked with their girl. They kill and will kill for nothing."

This jarring insight rang with relevance as Sewell's book was going to press. It involved a city court case and a BPD officer. He was convicted of manslaughter. The defendant, who was off-duty at the time, fired his revolver 12 times! He shot an unarmed ex-Marine to death. Why? The victim had "slapped" one of the female companions of the defendant on the backside, that's why!

You are going to need a strong stomach to get through this book, especially after what happened to an ill-fated victim, a "petty drug dealer," age 20, in case file one. Let me put it this way: he ends up stone dead in Leakin Park, which the authors label: "Baltimore's ad hoc cemetery." He had been stabbed 22 times in a hotel room, before being torched at the park. Three of the gang members who had roles in this ghastly crime were teenagers! The decision to kill was "routine"--no big deal.

What Sewell learned from his observations in this case and ten others that he details in cogent fashion, is this: There's an "inexplicable disconnect" between wrongdoers and their foul deeds. There's no "empathy" for the fate of the victims. None!

As of July 1st, there were 101 killings in Baltimore this year. June was a particularly deadly month, with 16 murders. In 2010, the City was ranked 5th in the nation by the FBI with 223 fatalities.

The narrative for so many of the murders in Baltimore reminds me of the recently captured notorious Irish Mob Boss, James "Whitey" Bulger, now age 81. He stands accused of killing 19 people, including one of his ex-girl friends. Like the people, Sewell and Janis are spotlighting, Bulger enjoyed torturing some of his victims and had "no feelings" whatsoever, for them. The experts called him a "cruel sociopath."] (3)

In his book, Sewell details eleven of the most infamous crimes among the many that he personally investigated. The murder of a young boy by a pedophile, age 50, will raise the hair on the back of your head. The victim's mother was a heroin addict, who allowed the sadistic pedophile "access to her son." The creeper got "jealous" because the boy showed an interest in a girl in his neighborhood. Sewell was struck by the fact that in the pedophile's twisted mind, the killing was "justified" because the child had "betrayed him!"

In his case files, Sewell cuts to the chase. He puts you at the murder sites and inside the heads of the demented killers. Think HBO's "The Wire!" You will truly be appalled and wonder: "What kind of lethal cancer seeps through the underbelly of our city?" Sewell's M.O. is to give you the unvarnished "truth" and to defuse the roaring crime debate with a powerful "dose of realism."

Sewell also takes a well-deserved dig at the failed "Zero Tolerance" policy of former Baltimore Mayor, Martin O'Malley. It resulted in the mass arrests of tens of thousands of innocent citizens, mostly African-Americans, for doing nothing more than "sitting on their front stoops." As a result of O'Malley's improvident actions, which misused the resources of the BPD, the city had to cough up $870,000 for a Civil Rights' lawsuit settlement brought by the ACLU on behalf of numerous plaintiffs. (4)

Query: `What is it really like to be a cop in Baltimore City over this last 25 years?" Well, Sewell spends a significant amount of his memoir giving you a no-holds-barred answer to that question.

Sewell's writing is so intimate, that you will feel that you are with him when he's riding in a patrol car through the drug-infested streets of the Eastern and Western Districts. You are there, too, when he's arresting at gun point two burglars who are trying to steal "copper pipes" from an abandoned house. You will feel Sewell's anticipation when Ed Norris, [a then-new-Police Commissioner], and his "New York City Boys," came roaring into town to revamp the BPD. You are also present when "dirty cops" are exposed; and, when "politics" in the BPD raises its ugly head. And, finally, you will witness the feud between the States Attorney's Office (under Patricia C. Jessamy), and the BPD, which puts the prosecution of some homicide cases in serious jeopardy.

In conclusion, Sewell is convinced the city is suffering from "a communal virus, a social pathogen." He loves Baltimore, the place of his birth, but, nevertheless, he persists in calling it, "a town with a disease called `Murder?'" Read this gripping shocker of a memoir by a veteran BPD homicide detective and make up your own mind!
Author's Notes:

1. Conan O'Brien's talk show comes on at 11 PM, on Cable's TBS. I prefer his comedic antics to the nightly "Crime-Babble" on the TV.
2. "Why Do We Kill?: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore," by Kelvin Sewell and Stephen Janis (Baltimore True Crime, $19.98, 200 pp. soft cover). [...]

©William Hughes, 2011, All Rights Reserved

Editor's Note:

William Hughes is an author and photojournalist. Email at: liamhughes@comcast.net
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not the Baltimore of my childhood 19 Sep 2011
By Pushed 60 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I decided to download this book after seeing that Kelvin Sewell was going to be featured at next week's Baltimore Book Festival. Being a huge fan of "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" and having read "The Corner" I felt this book would be in a similar vein. It was indeed but because it's a true story, it's incredibly sad. I was born and raised in Baltimore in the 1950's and my family like tens of thousands of others, left for the suburbs in the 1960's. What's left is a shell of a community that was once vibrant and family-friendly. Bodies in Leakin Park are as alien to me as a UFO since I lived directly across from the park and played there as a child. What's even more sad is that Sewell himself left for the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland. If a career police officer and detective gets as far as he can from Baltimore, then there's little hope the city will ever be more than what it is now...a glittering Inner Harbor and drug-ridden slums. If you're from the Baltimore area, it's a "must-read." If you're from any other old, formerly "great" city, read it as well. I think something will resonate with just about everyone.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important alternative to the David Simon presentations of Bmore 26 Aug 2011
By J. Higgins - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Reportage of Baltimore's crime, criminals, and underclass has been dominated by David Simon (`Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets', `The Corner', `The Wire'), who as a Jewish, urban, white, liberal may not be considered overly representative of the black population that constitutes the majority in the city.

In this slim book, Kelvin Sewell, a black resident who joined the Baltimore City Police Department (BCPD) in 1987 and spent 22 years in various assignments, provides a genuine `insiders' look at murder and mayhem on the streets of Charm City.

The first half of the book provides concise descriptions, or `case files', of 11 of the more noteworthy cases Sewell handled as an investigator in the Homicide Unit.

The second half is a quick overview of Sewell's career in the BCPD, focusing less on specific cases and more on the nature of police work, and a blunt appraisal of the role of race, politics, and bureaucracy on the operations of the BCPD.

The title's use of the pronoun `We', as opposed to the more typical `They', reflects Sewell's attitude that as a black man and a resident of the city, he saw its perps, and its victims, with a mindset different from that of many white officers and observers. It is this philosophy that gives Sewell's memoir a tenor and perspective that Simon's work is necessarily less apt to provide.

The case files in the first half of `Why Do We Kill ?' review genuinely cold-blooded acts of mayhem taking place from 2008 - 2010. With the exception of one case involving Paul Pardus, a white man who murdered his mother, shot a Hopkins hospital physician, and then killed himself, the case files describe acts of violence committed by low-income blacks upon other blacks of the low-income and working classes.

I finished the book with the feeling that Sewell, despite his years of experience, remains unsure, and even frustrated, as to how best to answer the question inherent in his book's title.

He does invoke the traditional root causes put forth by generations of liberal scholars and social analysts, i.e., poverty, racism, and neglect drive Baltimore's crime.

At the same time, however, it's clear that many of the murderers he has put behind bars are members of a unique and emerging breed of sociopath (if that's the right word), a breed whose actions have little, if anything, to do with the standard-issue explanations for violence in the underclass.

These New Sociopaths are genuinely surprised that their actions are considered evil; snuffing out the life of another member of society is seen as simply a more complicated, but no more immoral, iteration of stepping on a roach.

Indeed, 14 year-old Devon Richardson shot an elderly woman to death with a .22 shotgun because a friend dared him to do so. Richardson was not angry or enraged about being poor; a victim of racism; or a young black male and thus an `endangered species'.

He simply thought it would be entertaining to aim and shoot his rifle at a woman he had never met, who just happened to be crossing the entrance of the alley in which he had been plinking malt liquor bottles.

`Why Do We Kill ?' is an interesting read, although it does not fit comfortably into particular ideological camp, a factor that may lead white liberals, and some black activists, to discount its contents. It is a book that should be part of a the curriculum in criminal justice, public policy, and sociology courses in colleges and universities.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you are trying to understand city violence you need to read this 5 Sep 2013
By progers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
It doesn't give as much in-depth analysis of the perps but it is a candid and personal account of officers and the great police work that goes into solving these tragic murders in a very flawed system. It makes me sad for my city.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not What the Title Purports 23 Sep 2012
By homicidologist - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
With a title like Why Do We Kill (The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore) I assumed the book was going to offer insights into just that....why murder in Baltimore is different than other places, if it is.

The book, although a valiant effort, fell short of what I presume was the goal of the author. This book was no more than stories of various murder cases in the police files, but really offered no theoretical, scientific or even ideas specific to Baltimore. And, sadly, it appeared that the author ran out of ideas and filled in the rest of the book with more stories, this time about his career path.

As a retired 26 year criminal justice professional, I was extremely disappointed in what the book offered as opposed to what it could have offered. It now seems like there are so many "true crime" readers, that if a book has the words homicide, kill or murder in the title that book will sell regardless of content.

Thank you.
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