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Activists say race defines crime stories

Say urban deaths are often ignored

HARTFORD -- Activists are questioning why violent tragedies in urban centers like Hartford don't get the same media and government attention that has surrounded the recent slayings of a Cheshire mother and her daughters.

The Rev. Cornell Lewis, a Hartford minister, said yesterday that Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell's response to urban violence has been "slow as molasses."

Rell called for a review of the state's criminal justice system soon after the July 23 burglary and arson in suburban Cheshire. The crime left Jennifer Hawke-Petit and daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, dead.

State legislators also called for an investigation of the state's parole system after learning that the two suspects in the Petit killings were parolees. Lewis said similar responses are needed when young people die in Connecticut's inner cities.

"If we don't, then to me, it's sending a double message: one type of life, beautiful and white, [is] valued. Other kinds of life are not valued," Lewis said during a press conference with a group of activists in Hartford.

Chris Cooper, a spokesman for Rell, said she cares about safety in all cities and towns. Cooper pointed to a variety of efforts to address gun crimes in the state's three biggest cities, along with enhanced State Police presence, expanded job and educational opportunities for young people, and help combatting gangs.

By July 28, there were 17 homicides in Hartford so far this year, police said. At the same time last year, there were 15 homicides. About 1 1/2 weeks before the Petit slayings, two teenagers were shot to death execution-style. Police believe they were involved in a botched robbery. Those deaths, Lewis said, garnered only a few newspaper articles and television reports, while the Petit killings have become an international news story.

"You see people with teary eyes, in the media, shaking hands and voices that seem to be wavering or quavering," Lewis said. "When the two young boys were shot in the face, it was done professionally. It was hard-hitting, and then that was it."

Richard Hanley, assistant professor of journalism and director of graduate programs at the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University, said he thinks the extensive media coverage of the Cheshire murders is justified because it happened in a small, suburban town and involved "extreme violence" over a period of hours that included sexual assaults, strangulation, arson and the beating of Dr. William Petit, a well-known diabetes physician who was the lone survivor. The case also raises questions about who should be placed on parole and whether the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles had all the necessary information.

"There's a complexity here that I don't think is actually readily understood by critics of the coverage," Hanley said.

Hanley said there is a sense that urban homicides are covered using "drive-by journalism," in which reporters don't spend time learning more about the victims, the suspects, and the reasons behind the violence.