The Philadelphia Obituary Project Chronicles Lives Lost To Violence

Feb 6, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 1:22 pm

Trina Singleton picked up the newspaper the day after her son was murdered in Southwest Philadelphia.

"Violent day in Philly: 10 people shot, three of them fatally," read the headline.

Based on initial information from police, the article never revealed the fact that one of those three was Singleton's 24-year-old son, Darryl.

He was skinny and had a trim goatee. He wore Malcolm X-style glasses. At the time of his death, he was in school studying to be an EMT.

"Darryl was very friendly," the 46-year-old Singleton says. "He had a lot of personality. He liked helping people."

"He didn't have a criminal background," continues Singleton, a real estate agent, who now lives in Philadelphia's suburbs. "He wasn't a troublemaker."

But the life of Darryl, the eldest of her three children, was summarized in just one paragraph on Sept. 14, 2016, the day after he was shot to death. The article described the Tuesday he died as "a day of mayhem."

Police aren't sure what provoked Darryl Singleton's shooting death, but he was found in the alleyway behind his childhood home after he was hanging out with friends there.

Philadelphia lawyer Cletus Lyman says these kind of stories should not fade off into obscurity. He wants the murder statistics that contribute to street mayhem transformed into real stories. He has launched a new nonprofit website called Philadelphia Obituary Project.

"I remember having discussions occasionally when I'd meet journalists. I'd complain about this problem. 'Why didn't you follow up on this?' And I guess it's a problem of space," says Lyman, a 72-year-old civil lawyer. "And they'd say, 'Yes, we just don't have time to do this.'"

Families in Philadelphia can pay to have a lost loved one's obituary appear in a local newspaper. And if someone notable dies, many news outlets will write their own obituary.

But Lyman wants every murder victim, regardless of status, to be properly memorialized. Similar efforts to chronicle the lives of those lost to violence are underway in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Trenton, N.J. Lyman says the hundreds murdered every year in Philadelphia deserve to be more than a data point.

"They might give you a map with little dots on it, and that's all that these people were as far as information you could get publicly," Lyman says. "They were dots on a map."

Turning a single dot into a story was therapeutic for Trina Singleton.

"It does help the family with the healing and grieving process," she says. "We are able to reflect on the good parts of that person. And not just what happened to them."

In the months since her son died, Singleton's family is still grasping for answers about her son's violent end.

"When we cleaned his room out, we looked all over the place, because I'm saying, 'Was he into something that we didn't know about?' And there was nothing," she says. "There was nothing different than what a normal kid would have there."

'Every single victim is a person'

So far, the project has completed dozens of profiles by freelance reporters. Albert Stumm oversees the Obituary Project stories. He's a former Philadelphia Daily News editor.

"Every single victim is a person, and every single person had hopes and dreams. They had people who loved them," Stumm says. "They had something in their lives that made them special, and those are the things that we're trying to focus on."

The project's stories are different than a traditional newspaper obituary, which may highlight both the positive and the unfavorable details in a person's background.

Instead, the Obituary Project allows the surviving family to decide what part of a victim's past is included, Stumm said.

"What we're doing," he said, "is an addendum to the news cycle."

Stumm said many families feel like their loved one is being blamed for being killed when articles emphasize the circumstances that led to the death. The project, Stumm said, has a different aim.

"Not to be saying, 'Hey, well, sounds like a nice guy, but what did he do to get himself in that position?' "

Right now, Lyman, the lawyer, is personally financing the project, but he said the group will soon launch a fundraising campaign. If they want to chronicle every murder victim in the city, which sometimes means several people in one day, it will take resources beyond just a few part-time journalists.

At the Philadelphia Police Department headquarters, Commissioner Richard Ross says he hopes the Obituary Project wakes people up to the human toll of the city's high homicide rate.

Last year, 317 people were murdered in Philadelphia, the highest rate in five years.

"We all have got a role to play in stemming the tide of this violence," Ross says.

Convincing witnesses to cooperate with authorities is one of the biggest obstacles in making arrests in murder cases.

Maybe, Ross says, humanizing the grim numbers will encourage more witnesses to step forward to help solve open homicide cases.

"These people shouldn't be relegated to a stat or a statistic," Ross says. "At the end of the day, you're talking about people regardless of what may have happened that caused their demise, and it's all unfortunate."

Sixteen months after Darryl Singleton's death, police have still not made any arrests in connection with the case. Police are offering $20,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Though participating in the Obituary Project was part of Singleton's healing process, details of the day of her son's death will never leave her.

She says he had come to her suburban home to do laundry and finished some homework. He mentioned that he would not be going to his EMT class that night, since he says the instructor had canceled. So he went back to his place in Southwest Philadelphia instead.

An hour and a half later, her other son called her husband with the awful news.

When the call came in, her husband was out shopping for a gift for Darryl. The two shared a birthday.

"It's really sad," Singleton says. "We had plans for the next day. It was hard. It was hard the way we found out."

Singleton says when her son was growing up, she would keep a close eye on his circle of friends. She had him live with his grandparents out of state to get him out of the neighborhood during summers to "avoid mischief," she says. And she supported his dream of becoming an emergency responder before he died.

"We didn't want our children to turn out like some others that we had seen," Singleton says, while sobbing. "So we tried hard, and for it to happen any way is kind of like, well, you try to do the right thing, and then it happens anyway."

Copyright 2018 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Three hundred seventeen people were murdered last year in Philadelphia - the most the city has seen in five years. The public did not know most of those victims' names. The story of their lives weren't told. Now, a new project is attempting to tell the story of every homicide victim in the city. Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Trina Singleton picked up the paper the day after her son was murdered in southwest Philadelphia. The headline read "Violent Day In Philly: 10 People Shot, Three Of Them Fatally." What the article didn't mention was that one of those three was Singleton's 24-year-old son, Darryl.

TRINA SINGLETON: Darryl was very friendly. He had a lot of personality. He liked helping people.

ALLYN: He was skinny. He had a trim goatee. He wore Malcolm X-style glasses. And at the time of his death, he was in school studying to be an EMT.

SINGLETON: He didn't have a criminal background. He wasn't a troublemaker.

ALLYN: Singleton wished the public could have known this, but instead, her son, the eldest of three, was just one victim in what a local news article described as, quote, "a day of mayhem." Police aren't sure what provoked Darryl Singleton's shooting death, but he was found in the alleyway behind his childhood home after he was hanging out with friends there. Philadelphia lawyer Cletus Lyman is transforming street mayhem and murder statistics into real stories. He's launched a new nonprofit website called Philadelphia Obituary Project.

CLETUS LYMAN: I remember having discussions occasionally when I'd meet journalists, and I'd complain about this problem. What don't you follow up on this? And I guess it's a problem of space and, yeah, they would say, yes. We just don't have time to do this.

ALLYN: Families in Philadelphia can pay to have a lost loved one's obituary appear in a local newspaper, and if someone notable dies, many news outlets will write their own obituaries. Lyman wants every murder victim, regardless of status, to be properly memorialized. Similar efforts to chronicle the lives of those lost to violence are underway in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Trenton, N.J. Lyman says the hundreds murdered every year in Philadelphia deserve to be more than a data point.

LYMAN: That's all most of these people were as far as what information you could get publicly. They were dots on a map.

ALLYN: Trina Singleton says working with a writer from the Obituary Project has been therapeutic.

SINGLETON: It does help the family with the healing and grieving process. We are able to reflect on the good parts of that person and not just what happened to them.

ALLYN: Albert Stumm oversees the project's stories. He's a former Philadelphia Daily News editor.

ALBERT STUMM: Every single person had hopes and dreams. They had people who loved them. They had something in their lives that made them special, and those are the things that we are trying to focus on.

ALLYN: Stumm says news reports can give the impression a victim is partially to blame by emphasizing what led to a killing. He says the Obituary Project is different.

STUMM: Not be saying, hey, yeah, well, sounds like a nice, guy but what did he do to get himself in that position?

ALLYN: At the Philadelphia Police Department Headquarters, Commissioner Richard Ross says maybe humanizing the grim statistics will encourage more witnesses to step forward to help solve murders.

RICHARD ROSS: We've all got to play a role in stemming the tide of this violence.

ALLYN: It's a message Trina's Singleton took to heart raising her son. She'd keep a close eye on his circle of friends, had him live with his grandparents out of state to get him out of the neighborhood during the summer and supported his dream of becoming an emergency responder before he was killed.

SINGLETON: We tried hard. And for it to happen anyway is kind of like, well, you try to do the right thing, you know, and then it happens anyway.

ALLYN: Singleton has another cause, too - searching for the person who fatally shot her son. Sixteen months have passed since he was killed. Police have not made any arrests in connection with the case. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.