The main hall at St. Philip's Episcopal Church was dressed for a funeral. Rows of chairs were divided by a wide aisle. There was a podium at the front of the room, and long rectangular tables stood shrouded by heavy black cloaks.
People filed into the church, and smiled as they saw familiar faces. Many greeted one other with hugs and handshakes. Some even laughed while sharing a quick anecdote with an old friend—a fleeting moment of lightness when their hearts were so heavy.
Outside, a warm fall day suddenly chilled. The bright sky turned gray. Leaves swirled on gusts of wind as it began to rain.
The slow and somber march of the Durham police honor guard, clad in crisp dress blues, brought the attendees back to the reason they had gathered. They all shared the same crushing burden. Someone close to them suddenly, cruelly had been killed.
The crowd had assembled for National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, held annually on Sept. 25. Durham's chapter of the national group Parents of Murdered Children organized the memorial, inviting all 125 people on its mailing list, which is regrettably growing.
"You belong to a group no one wants to join," Tom Bennett, director of the N.C. Victim Assistance Network, said to the people in the room. And as he spoke to the families—black and white, young, old, well off and poor—he reminded them that violence penetrates all communities.
"What the public doesn't realize is that it can happen to anybody at any time," Bennett said. "Murder is the most democratic of crimes."
To an audience that included Mayor Bill Bell and State Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham), Bennett lamented that legislators this year had drastically cut funding for his organization, which helps victims of crime, while lawmakers had trimmed relatively little from a fund to help defend those accused of committing crimes.
But the leaders of Durham's chapter of Parents of Murdered Children have helped fill the gap for victims' families. Nellie Taylor Jones, owner of Ellis D. Jones & Sons Funeral Directors in Durham, started the group in 1993.
It helps families to see someone who has been in their shoes, she said, "to know if you're still standing, maybe I [will survive], too."
Diane Jones (no relation to Nellie Taylor Jones) and Mina Hampton, two women who lost their sons to murder, now head the group, the only chapter in this area of the state. The mothers coach other parents through the grief, accompany them to court and teach them about the legal system.
Effie Steele learned about the support group from Orange County officials, shortly after they told her that her pregnant daughter's body had been found in the woods. Ebony Robinson had just turned 21. The baby in her swelling womb, Elijah, was nearly ready to enter the world. But Kenneth Earl White, the baby's father, shot and killed the mother and her full-term child.
"He got life in prison," Steele said. "But it wasn't enough."
Steele is working with local leaders to promote a bill to allow district attorneys who are prosecuting the murder of a pregnant woman to include a second murder charge for the unborn child, whatever the stage of its development.
In the rows alongside Steele, families watched as a Durham police officer projected a photo tribute to recent murder victims.
There was Ebony. There was Ronald Fetherson, killed just last month. There was a smiling Janet Christiansen Abaroa, who was pregnant with her second child when she was found stabbed to death in her home in 2005. No one has been charged in her killing. There was Latrese Curtis, Carlos Clayton and Denita Smith. Lennis Harris Jr., Lajuan Coleman and Jonathan Skinner. Jamel Holloway, Crayton Nelms and George Perry. And dozens more.
The grief in the room hung heavy, like a haze. Some squelched their sobs; others bellowed. Ushers—much like the ones present at a funeral—swiftly distributed napkins.
Toward the end of the service, a speaker pointed to the front of the room, to the objects veiled by the black cloaks. Volunteers removed the drapes to reveal a series of plaques etched with the names of 532 murder victims. Before creating the plaques, Parents of Murdered Children had kept a poster with the names of Durham's murder victims. But the list kept growing, and they ran out of space.