The insanity of Baltimore's 'disrespect' killings

Two years after someone fired 18 bullets into his body, we finally know the reason Gregory McFadden died such a brutal death at the age of 27 in West Baltimore. He turned his back on a guy.

It was disrespect, a malady that inflames the male ego and makes young men do terrible things. Disrespect has been around for centuries, of course, but its consequences have been particularly lethal in the age of the high-powered handgun. Killing someone because he disrespected you is a phenomenon that no amount of police power or community vigilance can seem to stop.

Some interventions — Safe Streets in the Leon Faruq days — have been effective when beefs between young men became known. But what do you do to stop a killing like McFadden's?

All of the following facts come from testimony in a murder trial last week in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The shooting occurred on Tuesday night, Nov. 15, 2011, in Harlem Park.

McFadden was part of a group of young men on the street at 11 p.m. in the 700 block of N. Carrollton Ave., near a beautiful old stone church.

Maybe it's not a good idea to be on Carrollton Avenue at that hour, but until we declare martial law, a citizen is allowed to visit with friends on the sidewalk. That's what McFadden was doing.

The problem developed when a couple of guys approached him on the sidewalk.

One was Melvin Baker, 34, the other Antonio Moore, 22.

Baker had a brother named Neal Hunt, and Hunt had a girlfriend.

McFadden had flirted with the girlfriend a couple of weeks earlier, and now Baker wanted to have a word with him about that on Carrollton Avenue.

McFadden declined the opportunity for conversation and turned his back.

Baker took offense. So did Moore.

They felt they had been disrespected.

Instead of cursing McFadden or even engaging him with their fists, they reached for guns.

Baker started shooting. McFadden started running.

Baker chased him, shooting as he ran. Some of the shots hit McFadden. He collapsed in the street.

Baker and Moore fled into an apartment building, but moments later Moore re-emerged on Carrollton Avenue. He found McFadden prostrate on the asphalt, stood over him and fired more shots into him.

The medical examiner later found 18 wounds on McFadden's body, one from a close-range shot to the head. The detectives who worked the scene found 26 shell casings in the street.

The facts sound insane — primal anger over dubious acts of disrespect (in this case, flirting and spurning a confrontation about it) leading to a vicious death — but I hardly think this is an unusual story. In fact, I think it's more common than we generally believe.

We think of Baltimore homicides as drug-related, stemming from a turf war or an unpaid debt; we think of them as gangland killings.

But a bunch of them happen because of stupid human stuff, and the availability of guns.

You wonder how, in such cases, police ever manage to make arrests — how they get witnesses to come forward, how they separate facts from gossip — and how prosecutors manage to get convictions from juries that include some citizens who have low opinions of police and jaundiced views of the criminal justice system.

But they did it in the McFadden killing.

Detectives found two witnesses who saw the shooting and were willing to testify; two others separately overheard Baker and Moore confess. The latter two were reluctant to testify; one was initially held in contempt but later agreed to cooperate.

Last week, a jury found Moore guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime. The jury convicted Baker of the same offenses; he was also found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Court records show that Baker, who has a history of drug convictions, was once a co-defendant with a Pennsylvania Avenue drug dealer named Lamar "Block" Prilliman, who is now in federal prison.

Baker and Moore are both facing life sentences.

So that's a good thing. Two violent men — "bad guys with guns" is what former Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld would have called them — are off the streets, eliminating the possibility they'll contribute further to their city's rising-again homicide count.

Police would have had a tough time clearing the McFadden case unless the witnesses had helped them. The Baltimore Police Department's clearance rate for homicides — ones in which arrests are made — is at best 50 percent.

The fewer they clear, the fewer that get to trial and the less we understand about the nature of the homicides that keep dragging this city down.

But even then, I have to ask: What's that understanding get us?

We know what happened in the McFadden case — flirting, shunned conversation, disrespect, followed by 26 shots, 17 to the body, one to the head — but how do the cops stop that kind of insanity?

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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