Victims finally make it into the conversation about Philly's next DA

Family members of homicide victims attended a DA candidate forum that finally focused on victims. Here, they pose in a united front, after the forum.

On Wednesday night, a district attorney candidate forum was held at the Pennsylvania Bar Institute in Center City to discuss something that has oddly -- absurdly, really -- been missing from forums focused mostly on defendants' rights.

Victims.

“Explain why that has happened?” moderator and attorney Gaetano D’Andrea asked the candidates after acknowledging several victims in an audience of mostly attorneys.

 “Explain why they should vote for you when there has been almost no talk of victims?”

Even before I turned around to see, I could feel the family members of homicide victims I’ve gotten to know move to the edge of their seats.

As I’ve written in the past, the sometimes-singular focus of the campaign, which candidate Jack O’Neill rightly described as starting with why DA Seth Williams is a bad person before quickly moving to who could be the farthest left, has cut out some of our most vulnerable citizens.

It’s why several family members of homicide victims attended another forum at Arch Street United Methodist Church last month, despite its focus on mass incarceration.

The women wanted answers to lots of questions during that session, but none more than this: How would the candidates address more than half of the city’s homicides going unsolved? That issue is especially relevant to mothers who have sometimes waited years for someone to be held accountable for their loved one’s murder. Some are still waiting.

Except, when one of the mothers finally made it to the microphone to ask the question, the forum ended.

After reading about their frustrations, many of the candidates reached out to them.

They were committed to victims and victims' families, they told the women, and if they became the city’s next district attorney, they had ideas, lots of them, about how to advocate for them, from more communication to increased resources for programs.

At Wednesday’s forum, they repeated their dedication with back stories peppered with compassion and good intentions.

Of all the people on the stage, former city Managing Director Rich Negrin could relate the most. Negrin was just 13 when his father was shot dead in front of him. 

But when I mentioned this, the women said they were leaving the forum further from choosing a front-runner than they had been coming in.

“This was the moment for one of them to shine,” said Lisa Espinosa, whose son Raymond Pantoja was shot outside a Kensington nightclub in 2016. “And a lot of them just tiptoed around the issues, sounding alike.”

As appreciative as the women were for the forum, it was looking as if the night, hosted by Laffey, Bucci & Kent and several antiviolence organizations, was going to end on a disappointing note.

And then Kathy Lees, whose only son, 17-year-old Justin Reyes, was killed in 2011, got emotional. She was talking about the growing sisterhood she and the other women were forming.

 “I felt like my light was dimming,” she said of the years she’s spent waiting for someone to be arrested for killing her son.  “But here, with all of them, I feel like we are moving in the right direction.”

Aleida Garcia, whose son Alejandro "Alex" Rojas-Garcia was gunned down in North Philadelphia in 2015, nodded.

“You know something? I think all of us here are informing ourselves, educating ourselves, participating, and we’re out here and we want to be heard, which is a message for those moms, family members, sitting at home, crying in their bedroom, feeling alone,” she said. “We are starting a movement, we are the movement.”

These women, who had started the night wondering whom they would bet on, were ending it betting on one another. And right now, that seems to be a safer bet than any of the candidates running for district attorney. 

In that spirit, I’m asking everyone who has been touched by violence in Philadelphia to meet me at the Art Museum steps June 15. More details to follow.

We did this last year, with minimal notice, and got a nice-size group to share stories and call attention to something that touches us all.

Let’s fill the steps in a strong, united front.

Let’s bet on one another. 

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