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Essie Mae Horne has every reason to be bitter.
In 2006, someone shot to death her husband Andre in an early morning home invasion in Lincoln Park. She remembered locking eyes with a gunman and diving behind the bed as a bullet hit the wall.
Nearly a decade later, she was coming back from Cuyamaca College when she got a phone call. Johnnie Ray, her twin brother, who’d long been a source of support, was killed in a drive-by while visiting a friend.
Andre’s killer was never caught and, without anywhere else to turn, she wondered how she might take matters into her own hands. Instead, she went to Denny’s and started journaling.
Today, Essie seeks closure and accountability, on the one hand, while preaching compassion even for the people who robbed her, arguing that there’s trauma on both sides. “Hurt people hurt people” is how Essie summarized her thinking.
Four were arrested for Johnnie Ray’s death. Two were sentenced to more than 200 years behind bars for their role in a series of violent crimes. An accomplice got 15 years. The driver, who was a juvenile at the time of the murder, took a plea deal in adult court and got eight years.
Essie was satisfied with the outcome. What her brother’s killers did was obviously wrong, but she doesn’t thirst for blood. She forgave everyone involved and hopes they get the help they need.
“These kids were old enough to be my kids,” she said. “If mine did something like that, I would hope others had empathy.”
Crime rates in San Diego are relatively low these days when compared to past decades and even with an uptick of gun-related assaults. Still, anxieties over crime are mounting and feeding into the upcoming election. Some of the same politicians who expressed support for law-enforcement reform are now demanding crackdowns in what sounds like a redux of the reactionary rhetoric of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Stripped of its material and social context, the management of crime has fallen on police and prisons for decades. The United States incarcerates a greater proportion of its population than any other country.
Once again, the public discourse is shifting to more tough-on-crime policies, and we shouldn’t be surprised if the result is more trauma, more violence, more fear. But this moment also presents an opportunity to look at the lessons of the past and consider what one group in particular, victims, has to offer.
Essie’s view — that crime cannot be ignored and also cannot be condensed into a simple good versus evil binary — runs counter to the one we’re accustomed to hearing in media and political campaigns. But there’s evidence to suggest that hers is quite common, and helps explain why some victims’ groups have been supportive of major statewide reforms in recent years.
A pre-pandemic survey commissioned by the nonprofit Californians for Safety and Justice found that most people who self-identified as crime victims believe incarceration makes it more likely someone will reoffend in the future. They support replacing lengthy mandatory sentences with more judicial discretion and reducing prison terms for those deemed low risk by 20 percent.
Most want people suffering from mental illness to have alternatives to traditional courts and jails, and support using an additional 10 percent of the state’s prison budget on treatment and trauma-recovery services. That budget was approximately $12 billion when the survey was taken in 2019.
Violence tends to afflict certain neighborhoods, even certain blocks, and so those with criminal convictions can also be, and often are, victims of crime. There’s plenty of evidence showing that a lot of it goes unreported because victims themselves don’t believe it’ll solve anything long term. When trust is eroded, people begin thinking about their own forms of self-protection.
Being the victim of a crime increases the risk of substance abuse and depression, which can lead to a host of other problems that undermine one’s ability to earn a living and raise a family. Yet fewer than one in five of the survey’s nearly 700 participants — who aligned with the state’s racial demographics and geography and testified to a range of violent and non-violent offenses — said they’d received financial, counseling, medical and other assistance.
Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said her organization commissioned the survey to take politics out of debates over criminal justice. It suggests that many crime victims don’t believe our system of punishment and rehabilitation works very well, and they have a much more redemptive view of human nature.
“But if we’re looking at it from a commonsense approach, we can’t just keep arresting, prosecuting and convicting,” she said. “We need to deal with multiple layers of harm.”
Not all victims support weakening law enforcement’s funding or powers, of course. Groups like Alliance for Hope International, co-founded by former San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn, argue that victims of domestic violence, in particular, are not in favor of various reforms to bail, police funding and so on.
“In contrast, they want law enforcement to do more and do better,” he wrote last year alongside the results of his own survey.
They all seem to agree, though, that crime victims are owed better care.
California was the first state to establish a victims compensation fund in the 1960s, drawing on federal dollars, restitution fines and penalty assessments. It can be applied toward things like medical bills, lost income, broken property and relocation. But for years, certain people were blocked from taking advantage of the benefits, making their lives unnecessarily harder.
Until 2013, for instance, California blocked sex workers from receiving compensation after being raped or beaten. Another bill introduced in the Legislature last year would expand victims compensation to families of police violence.
The recent spike in violence in San Diego appears to the result of escalating tensions during the pandemic. The very people who could most benefit from getting out of that cycle of trauma, though, have been left to linger for many years without support. And one of the biggest impediments was the state’s gang database, a controversial, dubious and secretive list that included dozens of infants at one time.
A U.S. Department of Justice-funded report in 2003 noted that some states were denying claims for funeral services if the victim of a drive-by was a gang member. Others, the researchers wrote, “might pay in full, viewing an inner-city adolescent’s gang membership as no more blameworthy than a battered woman who continues to reside with her abusive spouse.”
In California, the Victims Compensation Board that reviews applications was not authorized to access the gang database, but it was still possible that staff could learn about gang ties through police reports included in the paperwork. Lawmakers put a stop to this practice in 2018. The board is no longer allowed to deny benefits based solely on the gang affiliation of either the victim or the family member seeking assistance.
The window to apply was also extended from three to seven years in 2019. It was too late for Penny Ovuede.
She remembered her son, Daniel, as a smart and curious kid who channeled his energies in the wrong ways, or at least the ways that made sense to him at the time. He wanted to own his own business — others thought he might have made a good lawyer — but he was pessimistic about his own prospects in San Diego at age 18.
Daniel made plans to move to Atlanta, his mother said, but he was shot on March 12, 1994, and died four days later. Daniel was one of several people killed near Lincoln Park that spring, provoking a candlelight vigil and march. “No more violence,” Walter Kudumu, a longtime activist, was quoted in the Union-Tribune at the time. “You’re our younger brothers, you’re our blood, you’re our flesh.”
Penny wasn’t willing to wait for change. Instead, she did what Daniel could never do.
She left San Diego — not because she feared for her own life but because she feared speaking one day with the murderer and not knowing it. The case is still open and those who knew him wonder to this day whether he was set up or killed accidentally. She packed up the family and hit the road in Daniel’s car.
“It still had the bullet holes in it,” she said.
State assistance would have helped, but Penny was grieving and couldn’t bring herself to fill out the application, believing she’d just get denied in the end because of Daniel’s affiliation with a gang.
He was laid to rest in Mount Hope Cemetery. The cost of the headstone alone would take the family years to pay off.
Laila Aziz, Daniel’s girlfriend at the time, is still bothered that Penny couldn’t get support through official channels. Through her work now at Pillars of the Community, Aziz encourages others to view public safety through the lens of a wide range of societal failures that include poverty and education, and consider that the line between victim and perpetrator is blurry.
“Their trauma is just as deep as the victims of violence,” she said. “When you’re on the victim’s end, it’s hard to see that.”
The number of resources available to crime victims has grown since Daniel’s death. And so has the network of support.
A few weeks ago, I stopped by a luncheon for crime victims in City Heights, where a dozen or so families socialized and raffled off prizes. One of the organizers, Elizabeth Muñoz, started a trauma care institute following the death of her son. It provides counseling, helps with funeral preparations and acts as a liaison between families and law enforcement.
In addition to the state victim compensation fund, the local district attorney’s office is the largest provider of crime victim services in the county. It established an emergency relief fund in 2005 and allocates millions of dollars through grants every year.
Aziz told me that she noticed crime victims voicing support for harsher punishments in political campaigns about two decades ago as talk of reform was heating up. “But at the same time, I would never disrespect or demean a mother who’s lost their child to violence,” she said. “It’s better to do the work and prevent harm over the long term.”
Muñoz shares the same goal. Her partnership with law enforcement, she said, is an opportunity to bend the ear of prosecutors while lobbying policy makers for reforms.
Her life was turned upside down when her son died. But she also knows that people convicted of crimes will leave their own homes broken. No one wins in that case. She seeks justice but doesn’t want the people who end up in prison hurting anyone else, inside or out.
“Having compassion in moments of despair is hard,” she said. “But we don’t want the cycle to continue.”