Baltimore Sun

Counting murder

Finding, distributing and analyzing crime statistics is one of the difficult and controversial elements of my job. It's one of the reason universities have criminal justice programs; the numbers can be used to get cities money to fight crime or label them as unsafe.

As we all know, crime stats can be juggled and changed, meanings twisted and used to suit countless agendas. I can always remember hearing that at least the muder numbers couldn't be changed. You can't hide the bodies, the saying went.


I bring this up because today's crime column in the Baltimore Sun is about how the city's police department keeps its list of homicides. We're all familiar with this -- every day the city tells us and we generally report to something like this: So far this year, 181 people have been killed this year, compared to 282 at this time last year.

Seems pretty definitive.


The list only includes unjustified homicides investigated by Baltimore Police. It does not include, for example, the death of a baby thrown off the Key Bridge or the two deaths in the state prisons located in the city. Those were investigated by different agencies, and show up on their stats. It does include the death of a man who died this year from a bullet wound he suffered back in 1995. Hardly a good measure of this year's violence.

What the column doesn't get into are accusations that surface from time to time that the city is hiding bodies. How? But convincing the state's chief medical examiner to keep them in the "pending" or "undetermined" category to either delay their entrance into the murder count or keep them off permanently.

I sat down with Maryland's chief medical examiner, Dr. David R. Fowler, on Friday (yes, on Halloween) to discuss the police list and why his list differs from theirs. First off, his office does all the autopsies for the entire state of Maryland, with about 6 million people, not just for Baltimore. It handles more than 9,000 cases a year, and his staff of 16 forensic pathologists perform more than 4,000 autopsies a year. Los Angeles has 22 pathologists for a population of 13 million.

Fowler said his office rules many cases "undetermined" -- there are about 700 currently in that category -- because his definition differs from that of medical examiner's in most other states. He rules nearly all drug-related deaths, and there are a lot not only in this city but in this state, as undetermined. Only Rhode Island and Massachusetts also do it this way. Other states rule such deaths accidental.

It might matter to people who look at the undetermind findings and wonder whether they're covering up homicides, but Fowler says his way, a standard that predates his arrival in the office in 1993, as "intellectually honest" because he cannot determine with reasonably certainty how the person really died. And keeping a case pending to keep it off this year's count: Nonsense, Fowler said. "That's like kicking can into next year," he added.

Our conversation got even more interesting from there. A body found in a vacant house has died from a drug overdose. It is a suicide? An accident? A homicide? Fowler said that many drug users have someone else shoot heroin into their veins because they can't find a suitable spot.

If the person dies, is this a homicide? The medical definition of a homicide is "a death at the hands of another." What about the drug dealer himself? "He's mixing substance X with mixing agent Y and stirring it up in a bowl," Fowler said. "You tell me that it's mixed evenly." His point: it could be determined that the man who mixed the drugs caused the death of the person who took them. He doesn't rule them homicides; he doesn't have enough information, but it's something to ponder.

Fowler gave a couple other good examples of deaths he rules homicides but that police typically don't think meet the requirements of an illegal act. A man holds up a bank, is chased in his car by police and hits and kills a pedestrian. Fowler says homicide; he argues the driver, by running from the cops, has forfeited his claim to be using the car for transport, and thus the killing is a death caused by his hands. "Most police departments rule this an accident," he said.


The other case involves a deer hunter who misses his target but hits a person instead. An accident, yes, by most legal definitions. But still, Fowler says, a homicide.

His numbers will always differ from police numbers, and that's not a bad thing, he says. He's looking at the medical cause; they're looking at legal intent. His is a broad definition and therefore will include a lot of cases. Police have a narrower definition -- what turns a homicide into a murder.

There's plenty of room for human judgment, and thus human error, even when trying to count what at first seems the most definitive of crimes.