Philadelphia's next DA needs to do something about unsolved murders

Mothers of murdered sons hoped to question district attorney candidates about Philadelphia's unsolved homicides. But the forum ended before they could address them. From left, Aleida Garcia, Kathy Lees and Lisa Espinosa pose inside Arch Street United Methodist Church after the forum.

Lisa Espinosa rushed out of work Tuesday night to get to Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City. One quick stop to pick up Kathy Lees, and the women joined Aleida Garcia, who was already inside, wearing a pin with a photo of her son, Alejandro "Alex" Rojas-Garcia, who was gunned down in North Philadelphia in 2015.

The women sat together, four wooden pews back from the altar-turned-stage where six of the eight candidates for district attorney attempted to impress the crowd.

The three were there to ask different versions of the same question:

What did all these people vying to be Philadelphia’s top law enforcement officer propose to do about more than half of the city’s homicides going unsolved?

For two hours they sat patiently inside the warm church as the candidates took questions from representatives of the coalitions that put on the forum, focused on mass incarceration, detention, deportation, and police abuse. 

Vital issues to be sure, but ones that felt like they were leapfrogging over the limbo cruelly inhabited by family members of homicide victims.

Would the sentencing of the person who killed their sons be too soft, too harsh? They wouldn’t know. The killers roam free.

When it was time for the general public to ask questions, Espinosa rushed to the line.

There were only a few people in front of her, but not much time left. Just as it was to be her turn, the forum ended.

She looked crushed. “A victim wants to ask a question!” she shouted. But by then, the candidates were making their way off the stage, and the crowd was dispersing.

It was over. 

Except it’s never really over for mothers whose children are murdered.

The next day was the first-year anniversary of the day Espinosa buried her son, Raymond Pantoja, who was shot outside a nightclub at B Street and Allegheny Avenue in Kensington.

 “It was rough,” she said. “I just kept thinking about the night before and how we’re all still fighting to be heard.”

And yet, she tries to remind herself that she’s luckier than most. It took unrelenting pressure from herself and her family, but six months after her son was killed, a suspect was arrested.

No fellowship in Philadelphia seems to be growing faster than families of murdered loved ones whose deaths go unsolved, some for years, other for decades or lifetimes.

According to the most recent rates reported, while the Homicide Unit posted a clearance rate above 70 percent in 2012 and 2013, in 2015 - when there were 277 killings -  the rate was just 45.4 percent.

Lees’ only son, 17-year-old Justin Reyes, was killed in 2011. His murderer has not been caught, despite an anonymous tip line and a reward. She said that the friend who was with him when he was shot was uncooperative with police, and that the detective on the case has told her there are no leads.

Beyond waiting for people to grow a conscience, what’s the plan?

After a post was put on Twitter about the mothers' not being able to address the candidates, Larry Krasner, Jack O’Neill and Joe Khan responded. They want to meet the mothers. They have lots of ideas – prioritizing homicides, stemming easy access to guns, increasing trust between the community and police.

“Young people don’t step up and help solve cases if they view the police as an occupying army that does not respect them," Krasner said.

They agreed that victims’ families needed to be treated with respect, that the DA’s Office has to be reformed into one that the public trusts.

It all sounds good, the stuff that campaigns are built on.

But until promises turn into action, there are these mothers, waiting for someone to be held accountable. Stuck in the silence between a community and a criminal justice system.

“Right now," Lees said, "somebody who kills someone in Philadelphia has a 50-50 chance of getting away with murder."