And I can’t help but notice a trend in the true crime genre that the victims overwhelmingly tend to be white and/or middle to upper class. And it makes sense why it does, and a heavy portion of that trend is because the media itself focuses more on crimes committed against white people with means.
Recently, the true crime genre has been maligned for in the last month being cop propaganda, but the race and class bias of true crime even comes with its main audience — predominantly middle-class white women.
“One thing troubling about the true crime genre is how disproportionately it favors stories about attractive middle-class white women who’ve gone missing versus stories about the people who are much more likely to suffer violence in our society,” writes author Rachel Monroe.
And I agree completely with Monroe in how the genre disproportionately features middle-class white women who’ve gone missing — and I’m complicit in that. The three true crime cases I’ve written about — Kitty Genovese, Laci Peterson, and the victims of self-help guru, James Arthur Ray, all feature middle-class white-passing women as victims.
Look, let me give a disclaimer first. I don’t believe that true crime in itself is a bad thing or people shouldn’t enjoy listening to true crime podcasts or reading true crime books. If anything, true crime should simply be expanded as a genre to feature the more likely victims of violent crime in low-income, minority communities that will help law enforcement solve murders. Most people probably don’t know the difficulties city police departments have in clearing murders —only 59.4% of murders were cleared in 2016, the lowest since the FBI tracked the issue.
In Baltimore, 348 people were killed last year in 2019, a murder rate per capita worse than El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. People get killed almost every day here, and there are no true crime podcasts about it.
Only one received viral attention that could have qualified as a “true crime” case — Malachi Lawson a Black boy who was put into scalding hot water by his mother and had his skin burned severely. His burns were untreated and he passed away, and then was taken in a trash bag in a Lyft to a garbage can, and disposed of him.
Only the horrific nature of the story, as well as Malachi Lawson’s age, made it a frontpage story — but still, that was only locally. The names and deaths of people in Baltimore tend to be more statistics than faces we see as tragic lives lost in the true crime genre. And Baltimore’s murder clearance rate in 2019 was 32.1%, far below the national average and one of its lowest in three decades, which means that 68% of murder victims did not gain justice.
As such, I believe that the only way to move true crime beyond white, middle-upper class privilege is not to just lambast the issue, but to bring more attention to communities that don’t often get justice. Monroe states that true crime can be an engine for justice, to understand the world and show how justice works and who gets to exercise it. She wrote about Ashlynne Mike, a Navajo girl who was kidnapped, and brought attention to her story, taking extra pains to report and be sensitive to the family.
“When was the last time Oxygen or Investigation Discovery did a show about sex workers? Or young black men, who are actually the primary victims of violence in the United States? Those victims don’t make it onto those shows,” she asked.
We should do the same to bring justice to families in a place like my home here in Baltimore, a 63% Black city where 23% of its citizens live under the poverty line, where almost 70% of murders go unsolved.
The Dawson family murders
The “true crime” case I want to focus on is the 2002 Dawson family murders — unfortunately, what now would garner the journalistic term of “evergreen” — in essence, the matriarch of the family, Angela Dawson, a Black woman, alerted the police to drug dealing, assault, and other crime in Oliver, her East Baltimore neighborhood of the city. As a result, her entire family died after the home was firebombed.
It is evergreen because witness intimidation is still a heavily relevant issue in Baltimore today, and a reason why the clearance rate in Baltimore is so low today is because of not only the lack of trust between local communities and law enforcement but a code of silence when witnessing a crime to not talk to the police for fear of retaliation.
“For far too long, residents have been too scared to come forward and tell police what they know about crimes,” the Baltimore Sun editorial board said in January of this year. “The stop-snitching culture has hindered police investigations, made residents hostages in their own neighborhoods, and left far too many criminals on the street.”
Our state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, has said that about one-third of cases in her office are dropped because of uncooperative witnesses or victims.
In the Dawson case, the house had been firebombed not once, but multiple times in the month of October of 2002. Angela Dawson was known as a crusader in the neighborhood, said Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times. She undertook local efforts to stop drug trafficking and crime in her neighborhood, but neighbors would say that some in the community that engaged in criminal behavior did not appreciate her efforts and tried to threaten and silence her:
‘’They said stuff like if she ever came out on the streets they were going to kill her,’’ a nearby resident, Marcus Trustty, 18, said.
When first responders came to the scene, they found that Dawson and her five children had died in a fire. Her husband, Carnell Dawson Sr., had escaped by jumping out the second-story window, in critical condition with burns covering most of his body.
The whole house would end up a “blackened shell” according to Gettleman, where eight-foot-high piles of debris were stacked on outside. The basketball was melted, the bicycle seat was burned off, and a Size 3 gym shoe was scattered on the sidewalk.
An aunt of the children would say that “I didn’t think they would go this far,” who only identified herself as Alice. She walked away.
Before their death, the Dawson family lived on the corner of the block, and Angela Dawson repeatedly tried to get the drug dealers away from the front of her house. When she tried, the drug dealers responded with threats.
The police and city officials were vilified for not being able to protect the family despite all of the escalating violence, but city officials would say that they offered to protect the family, but the Dawsons declined the offer.
Only two weeks later, two Molotov cocktails were thrown through the kitchen window, and Carnell Dawson smelled the smoke and extinguished the fire. The family boarded up the window, but Dawson struggled with young people who loitered on the corner, sometimes until 3 a.m. Another neighbor would say that she didn’t want drug traffickers around her kids.
When firefighters arrived on the scene, they found the bodies of Angela Dawson and all her children after fighting for an hour to get the fire under control. Neighbors were surprised that they went into the house in the first place because of the intensity of the fires.
That night, classmates of the kids would leave a big card near the house, saying the following messages:
“R.I.P. Keith and Kevin.”
“Dawsons, even though I didn’t know ya’ll I still got love for you.”
“I love you, Angel,”
Nearly a year later, 21-year-old man Darrell Brooks apologized to the courtroom and confessed to the murders.
‘’I will never, ever, as long as there is breath in my lungs, ever forgive myself,’’ he said last Wednesday. ‘’I knew those kids. I loved them. I swear I didn’t mean it, I swear.’’
Brooks was given a sentence of life in prison.
He was born on June 10, 1981, and throughout his childhood, watched his family evaporate as his dad walked when he was born, and his mother beat him so badly when he was 5 that she lost custody of him. When he was 12, his brother, Jeffrey, was shot to death. He was living as a teenager in a row home with his two sisters, struggling through school and taking antidepressants a friend said: “he was raising himself.”
Brooks’s friend, Trevira Jefferson, would say that his upbringing would leave him very impressionable to older boys in the community, who would tell him to steal and fight, and he would do both. Brooks’s basketball coach, William Wells, would say that he was really angry as a child:
“He told me his mother loved her boyfriends more than she loved him,’’ Mr. Wells said. ‘’The boy had no structure.’’
Brooks would be arrested numerous times for minor drug offenses, and on one occasion, when he was 17, Brooks pointed a BB gun at an 11-year-old boy, stealing his mountain bike. He would be on probation.
Many people would try to help Brooks, and a councilman would help him get a job at City Hall, where he helped adjust microphones and fill pitchers. In May 2002, a councilman saw him at a bus stop and noted that Brooks hadn’t shown up to work in a long time.
Brooks and Dawson were neighbors, and Dawson was always bothered by boys yelling on the corner the going price for crack. Brooks, at the time, was on the corner as a 21-year-old lookout, according to police reports, a job usually occupied by fifth graders.
In the timespan between June and October, the Dawsons would call the police 35 times as a result of clashes between them and the dealers outside their house. Brooks admitted to throwing the Molotov cocktails on October 3rd, and then again two weeks later on October 16, the attack that killed the Dawsons.
Brooks would say that in the latter attack, he kicked the Dawsons’ front door open, splashed a pickle far of gasoline on the stairs, and lit the flame.
He would be arrested the day later, and charged with murder. Since he was on probation at the time, no probation officer was supervising him, leading two probation officers to be disciplined.
Brooks would plead guilty in federal court to arson resulting in death, and sought forgiveness for the deaths of the Dawson family.
“I thought I deserved nothing but death,” Brooks said.
Prosecutors would say that Brooks was not eligible for the death penalty because his mental capacity was so impaired that he was not eligible for it. Life without parole would be his sentence.
The Dawson case hits close to home for a lot of reasons. It is no secret that Baltimore is struggling with violence and gun violence in particular. I have written extensively about how lockdowns become the new normal in schools because of that reality. The story of Brooks really hits home, too. I teach special education kids in Baltimore who are academically low-performing.
In one instance, I saw one of my students on the corner of an East Baltimore corner as I was driving a U-Haul to help my girlfriend move. We made eye contact, but didn’t have time to say anything, but discussed what he was doing there the next time he came to school.
And people who do try to be warriors for justice, like Angela Dawson, suffer retaliation and unfair consequences. At the time, new mayor, Martin O’Malley, had a crime-fighting campaign called “Believe” that encouraged residents to report criminal activity to the police.
Members of the Dawson family that survived tried to sue the city for $14 million for encouraging residents to report criminal activity in its “Believe” campaign, but the suit was dismissed.
Ultimately, cases like the Dawson family murder leave me with the growing sense that there’s only that can be done for the violence. If I were Angela Dawson, and lived where she lived, I would not have spoken up about the crime, and I certainly would not have called the police. And for people that see the year of 2002 and think that it doesn’t happen anymore — it still does happen, all the time.
Just before the new year in 2020, salon owner and new mother, Destiny Harrison, told police that she feared for her life just days before she was shot and killed. Three weeks earlier, she was attacked and robbed by two neighbors, and in a written testimony, she accused the suspects of holding her down and while the other stomped on her and demanded her property. The suspects allegedly fled with $3,00 in hair bundles from her salon, and she told the court that she knew one of them had a violent background.
“I’m scared for my life and business,” she wrote.
Stories like that of Destiny Harrison and the Dawson family are true crime stories that too often go untold. But why? Why isn’t there as much media coverage as when predominantly white, middle-upper-class victims get killed? Why can’t the police protect witnesses? Why is there so much danger in speaking up?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. All I know is that these victims deserve justice and more of our attention, and we can encourage both law enforcement and the media to pay as much attention to cases like Harrison and the Dawsons as they gave a high-profile case like Casey Anthony.
Originally published on CrimeBeat on July 13, 2020.