Cold Cases: Murder in L.A. and the Value of Black Life

Serial killings in L.A. reveal a sense that violence against black women is more tolerable, more expected, less deserving of punishment.

By Michelle Chen Aug 05, 2010

Are some murders worse than others? How could a killer vanish into a racial blindspot in the public imagination? The LA Times has looked back at scores of murders of Black women "during a 10-year period that serial killers roamed South L.A." Many crimes went unsolved and questions linger about whether more could have been done. You might roll your eyes at the lurid true-crime tone of the piece, but from the gory details emerges an unseemly picture of structural impunity–a sense that violence against Black women is more tolerable, more expected, less deserving of punishment. At the time of the murders, racial hostility in the city was on a high boil; police-community tensions gave local residents good reason to see the police as a threat rather than a protector. Meanwhile, LAT‘s Scott Gold and Andrew Blankstein report, drugs and gang-related street crime swarmed over impoverished neighborhoods. In a corner of the world that seemed abandoned and disenfranchised in every respect, the cracks were so wide that it was a miracle not to fall through. And so as serial killers ran rampant at the forgotten margins of the city, "The rapes and murders of dozens of young women were, effectively, lost in the crime wave." Unlike the convulsions of panic and grief that washed over the country in the wake of Jon-Benet Ramsey and the Hillside Stranger killings, the victims in South L.A.didn’t evoke the same sympathy. Barbara Ware’s body turned up in 1987, and though her case was eventually linked to a serial murderer, the lone Black girl who’d gotten mixed up with drugs was effectively sentenced to death in obscurity.

"At that time, it was just another young African American lady," said her stepmother, Diana Ware. "It didn’t get a lot of attention."

Margaret Prescod, an activist who fought for years to push authorities to take more action on the slayings, sees racism threading through their unresolved narratives:

Prescod also cited incidents in which the investigation fell short. Police have acknowledged that they failed to aggressively follow through after a man called 911 to report seeing Barbara Ware’s body being hauled out of a van in 1987. Police did eventually release a tape of the call — 22 years later. Authorities also missed an opportunity to catch the alleged Grim Sleeper because his DNA was not collected as required under a 2004 law…. Perhaps the holes in the investigation, Prescod argued, could help explain how most of the killers were so brazen and lived such public lives. Franklin showed one acquaintance a box of women’s underwear he kept behind his house. In one case, Chester Turner walked no further to kill than around the corner from his cheap hotel. He also reportedly attended a post-funeral dinner at the family of one victim. "Lessons can be learned from this," Prescod said. "There is no excuse to have a hierarchy of value in human life."

We shouldn’t rush to assume that an unsolved crime has to reflect some kind of unaccountability or bias in law enforcement. But too often, interlocked social crises conspire to make women of color more vulnerable to violence and crime. In communities written off as hopeless and lawless, moral lines blur when authorities judge which violations are worthy of their full efforts. Was that distorted perception a willing accomplice in these women’s tragedies? It’s an unsolved mystery that society answers only in silence.