2012 Year in Review and a Look Ahead to 2013

My short documentary, "The Mothers," is about the impact of gun murder. It screened at the Carrboro Film Festival in November 2012. I'm standing with other filmmakers here during a Q&A.With 2013 getting into full swing, I’d like to look back at the highlights of 2012 and share some personal and professional plans for the coming year.

I’m extremely grateful and pleased with the reception of my short documentary, “The Mothers,” which I finished in May 2012. The film is about the impact of gun murder. I followed two mothers from the Parents of Murdered Children chapter in Durham and made the film as part of earning a certificate in Documentary Arts from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.

After the film premiered, I traveled to Arizona, where “The Mothers” was screened during the Parents of Murdered Children national conference. The film was also among 33 films shown during the 7th annual Carrboro Film Festival.

In addition to screenings, I was a guest on WUNC’s The State of Things with host Frank Stasio and appeared on Tarheel Talk, a FOX 50 TV program focused on community issues in North Carolina.

Like my journalism work, making the film was uniquely rewarding. It made a difference in the lives of Diane Jones and Mina Hampton, the main mothers in the film, and that filled my heart.

Mina’s daughter, Charlotte Hampton, posted a comment on my website as I filmed and wrote updates about the story on this blog:

“This is not a topic that everyone will read, and some who read will not understand. Leanora, you are so brave and so deeply caring to even attempt it. Thank you for letting us know we are not forgotten, and that our loved ones will live on through us and your efforts to bring these stories to others.”Mina Hampton, left, and Diane Jones, right, co-leaders of the Parents of Murdered Children chapter in Durham presented me with this framed portrait of a mother embracing her child.

Just before Christmas, the Parents of Murdered Children chapter in Durham presented me with a framed portrait of a mother embracing her child. As much as I appreciate the gratitude, the greatest gift for me has been the opportunity to get to know this group and learn from the strength, perseverance and love they’ve cultivated in the midst of debilitating grief.

With the short documentary finished, friends, family and peers are asking, “What’s next?”

Truthfully, I’m not sure yet. I’m considering expanding the film but would like to form a team to work with me. If you’re interested in working on a project that will change lives, and you are skilled at shooting video or adept at editing, let’s talk.

In the meantime, I plan to make “The Mothers” available on my website in the coming months. I also hope to host a few community screenings in the coming year.

As I consider next steps for the film, I’ll be getting settled in Durham. Late last summer, I sold my house in North Raleigh and moved to Durham, finally ending a seven-year work commute. For now, I’m living in downtown Durham while I search for a house to buy. Most of my stuff is in storage, but I’m so excited to be a Durham resident. I love living in this city. My drive to work is six minutes, not even close to the nearly hour-long drive home I had after work. Now, I walk to restaurants, theater and other cultural venues.

This November will mark my ninth year as a Duke employee. I’ve got some unique opportunities this year. Specifically, I was selected to participate in the Duke Leadership Academy, a yearlong program to nurture the next generation of leaders at Duke. I’m honored to be part of the fourth class and look forward to learning from my peers.

When I launched this blog in late 2011, it mainly served as a home to post updates about my documentary film and my original news stories about underreported crime in Durham. I enjoyed practicing journalism again (I’m a former newspaper reporter.) I felt proud of reporting stories like the “2011 Year in Review: Homicides in Durham.”

I don’t think I’ll ever shake my crime reporter persona, but I’m going to take some time to think about the next iteration of this blog. I welcome your insights or suggestions.

Thank you for your support in 2012, and I wish you all the best in the coming year.

WUNC, Tarheel Talk Feature Durham Murder Documentary

Mina Hampton, left, Frank Stasio, host of The State of Things, and Leanora Minai in WUNC's studio in Durham.Since my short documentary, "The Mothers," premiered in May, radio and TV programs dedicated to raising awareness about issues of concern in North Carolina have invited me and the mothers in my film on their programs to talk about the impact of murder.

On Sept. 25, the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, I was a guest on WUNC’s The State of Things with host Frank Stasio. Mina Hampton, co-leader of the Parents of Murdered Children chapter in Durham and a mother featured in my documentary, joined us in the studio at the American Tobacco Campus for the live radio program. (There's also an audio recording of the show).

Later that evening after the radio show, "The Mothers" screened during the Parents of Murdered Children remembrance ceremony at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Durham with about 100 community members and leaders in attendance.

Tarheel Talk Host Sonya Harris, left, Diane Jones, Leanora Minai and Mina Hampton on the FOX 50 set in Raleigh.And about two weeks ago, on Oct. 23, Tarheel Talk, a TV program focused on community issues in North Carolina, had me, Mina and Diane Jones, another mother featured in my film, on the program. Diane serves with Mina as co-leader of Parents of Murdered Children chapter in Durham. 

The Tarheel Talk interview with show host Sonya Williams will air at 6:30 a.m. Nov. 18 on FOX 50. (Set the DVRs!)

I sincerely appreciate the invitations to talk about the film, but most of all, I am happy that the mothers have the opportunity to tell their stories.

Please contact me if you're interested in arranging a screening for your group or community.

Highlights from Durham Documentary Screening at National Parents of Murdered Children Conference

Diane Jones, left, and Mina Hampton, right, two mothers featured in the film, "The Mothers," receive applause after the screening in Phoenix.

I recently traveled to Arizona to show my short documentary to parents and family members whose loved ones were murdered.

About 350 people, including two of the Durham, N.C., mothers in my film, gathered in Phoenix Aug. 9-12 for the 26th annual Parents of Murdered Children national conference.

The conference featured keynote speakers and about 40 workshops, from “A Mother’s Grief” and “Cold Cases & Overview of Homicide Investigation” to “Ask the Medical Examiner” and “When Your Child’s Lifestyle is Judged.”

“It shows the world that our loved ones will never be forgotten,” said Dan Levey, the organization’s executive director, as he stood before wood plaques, each bearing the names, dates of birth, and dates of death of several thousand murder victims. The plaques were unveiled to attendees on the first night of the conference during a ceremony facilitated by members of a police honor guard.

My film, “The Mothers,” is a 10-minute documentary about a group of Durham, N.C., mothers who support each other through grief and healing after their child’s murder. It was shown Aug. 9 during the training workshop for leaders of Parents of Murdered Children support group chapters across the country.

The reaction from the audience of about 100 was positive and affirming. “We have a story to be told,” said Levey, whose brother, Howard, was murdered in 1996. During a question-and-answer session after the film, audience members asked why I made the film. One individual said it was a “brave choice” to cover murder as a topic.

I learned things, too. Some family members of homicide victims find the expression of sympathy, “I’m sorry for your loss,” almost offensive. One woman said friends and family of homicide victims don’t “lose” anyone. “They were ‘taken’ from us,” she said.

Closure, which was covered in my film, was another important point. A woman in the audience noted, “there’s never closure. What you learn to do is live with the pain.”

The highlight moment for me came when two of the mothers featured in my film – Diane Jones and Mina Hampton, the co-leaders of the Durham, N.C., chapter – stood and received a round of applause from their chapter leader peers from across the country.

Diane Jones, left, me, and Mina Hampton during the conference.Here are highlights from some workshops I attended:

A Mother’s Grief (Part 1)

Beckie Miller, the 2012 conference co-chair, led Part 1 of this workshop. Her son, Brian, was robbed and shot to death in Phoenix in 1991. For nearly 20 years, she has led the Phoenix chapter of Parents of Murdered Children with 1,500 members. She said there’s never justice and the pain never ends. “It does get easier, but it’s never easy,” she said. She stressed the importance of coping skills like honoring a child by finding a cause and referenced John Walsh as an example. “There’s always something you can do to give yourself a way to endure,” Miller said.

Neuroscience of Trauma and the Brain

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University who specializes in counseling those affected by traumatic losses like the death of a child, talked about the effects of traumatic experiences on the brain. She suggested working toward a “calm and centered” brain and offered ways to help repair damage from trauma by practicing yoga, meditating or performing service. “Any time you do something nice for someone else, you’re doing something nice for yourself,” she said. How does Cacciatore practice mindfulness? She hikes barefoot once or twice a week.

When Your Child’s Lifestyle is Judged

Gayle Moffitt and Mary Elledge led this workshop to help parents struggling with their loved ones being blamed for their murder because of a lifestyle. Moffitt’s daughter, Diana, was a prostitute when she was murdered in 1987. Her case remains unsolved. Examples of some other lifestyles cited during the workshop included being in a gang or living homeless. “That person had people who loved them, and who are we to judge?” Elledge asked. “…The person responsible is the person who committed the crime.”

(Editor's Note: I paid my own conference, travel and lodging fees.)

Durham Documentary to Screen at Parents of Murdered Children National Conference

In August, my short documentary film, The Mothers, will screen at the 26th annual Parents of Murdered Children national conference in Arizona.

Parents of Murdered Children, a national support group for families and friends who’ve lost loved ones to violence, has chapters from New York to California.

My documentary is about a group of Durham, North Carolina, mothers who support each other through grief and healing after losing a child to murder. On August 9 in Phoenix, The Mothers will be shown to 75 to 100 chapter contacts and leaders, including Diane Jones and Mina Hampton, two mothers in my film who lead the Durham chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.

I talked last week with Beckie Miller, co-chair of this year’s national conference. She expects 300 people to attend the overall conference, which features keynote speakers and workshops covering grief, unsolved homicides, victims’ rights, the aftermath of murder and more.

Miller’s 18-year-old son, Brian, was robbed and shot to death in Phoenix in 1991. For nearly 20 years, she has led the Phoenix chapter of Parents of Murdered Children with 1,500 members.

The national conference, Miller said, is a time for survivors to connect, learn and feel inspired. “It just reminds us that we’re not alone and gives us hope that we can survive,” she said.

I’m grateful for this opportunity to share The Mothers at the conference. I hope to contribute to a larger conversation, one I’d like to expand through other screenings in the city of Durham, which had 27 murders in 2011.

I first screened this film to an overflow audience on May 18, 2012, at The Nasher Museum of Art in Durham. My film was among other short work screened by continuing education students receiving the Certificate in Documentary Arts from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. That night was one of the best evenings of my life.Leanora Minai, left, shares a moment with Diane Jones, right, after the May 18 premiere of The Mothers at The Nasher Museum of Art in Durham. Jones is one of the mothers featured in the film.

The mothers in my film – their strength and courage to survive and help others – inspired me to tell this story. In my years as a daily newspaper reporter, I wrote about many murders, but it was rare to have the chance to follow up on the pain that endures for loved ones long after the headlines disappear.

I am forever grateful to Diane Jones, Mina Hampton and other family members in Durham for letting me into their lives and sharing their stories.

Request a screening of The Mothers

To arrange a screening of The Mothers for your group or community, please get in touch with me. I also welcome any feedback about the film, as I consider the possibility of expanding it into a longer piece. You can post feedback or read comments left by others in the guestbook.

Graveside Memorial Honors Girl Killed in 2011 Durham Drive-By

Shakanah’s mother, Demetriss China, placed a red rose at the grave. Photo by Leanora Minai.On what would have been Shakanah China’s 14th birthday, her mother, family and friends gathered at her unmarked grave.

Her friend, Alexis Joyner, wore a black T-shirt that read, “R.I.P. Sis Forever In My Heart.”

Her mentor, Shanna Jefferson, stood by the gravesite with tears in her eyes and reflected on Shakanah’s birthday last year, the one they celebrated over a meal at Ruby Tuesday.

“I never would have thought that it would have been the last birthday we spent together,” said Jefferson, who saved the receipt from Ruby Tuesday as a keepsake.

Nearly a year has passed since Shakanah died in a drive-by shooting in Durham. An unintended target, she was standing outside May 10, 2011, when someone opened fire from a passing van.

Police say the murder investigation is active, but the case remains unsolved.

“Some people say it was gang bangin’ … I don't care what it was over,” said Shakanah's mother, Demetriss China.

“I just want justice to be served. She’ll be 14 years old today, and she’s not here. People ask me, ‘will I forgive?’ No, I won't forgive – for nothing in the world. Next month will be a year. I can't forgive ... No, I can't forgive you.”

 

Here are moments captured from Shakanah’s gravesite at Glenview Cemetery in Durham on Monday, April 9.


Photo by Leanora Minai.At Shakanah’s grave, above, family and friends arrange a memorial, which includes balloons that read “Love” and “Happy Birthday Princess.”

 

 

Photo by Leanora Minai.India Parker, 14, above, exchanged text messages with Shakanah several minutes before the shooting. “She told me how much she loved me, that she was going to be here for me no matter what through thick and thin,” India said. “It’s kind of hard to believe that she is gone.”

 

Photo by Leanora Minai.Shakanah China’s grave at Glenview Cemetery. She is buried beside her grandmother.

Anyone with information about the Shakanah China case is asked to call Durham Police Investigator Pate at (919) 560-4440 ext. 29332 or CrimeStoppers at (919) 683-1200. CrimeStoppers pays cash rewards for information leading to arrests in felony cases. Callers do not have to identify themselves.

2011 Year in Review: Homicides in Durham

Twenty seven people were murdered in Durham in 2011. A firearm was used in 22 – or 81 percent – of the killings.

It was also a year marked by a 3 percent increase in violent crime in Durham when, according to preliminary FBI semiannual statistics for 2011, the number of reported violent crimes in the U.S. was declining.

And within the first eight days of 2012, three people were fatally shot in Durham.

"This is a very disturbing trend that we, as a community, should not and cannot accept,” Mayor Bill Bell said during a press conference Friday.

Flanked by Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez and about 15 city and county officials in the Durham County Administration Building, Bell announced strategies to reduce gun violence in Durham. They include, among other steps, hefty bails and working to change legislation to ratchet up penalties for gun crimes.

As part of my short documentary film, I’ve been reviewing data related to Durham homicides. Going into 2011, the three-year (2008-2010) average for homicides was 23. Of the 27 homicides in 2011, 11 victims' cases remain open and 13 have been cleared by arrest. Three victims' cases are classified as inactive or not active due to the death of the offender.

I’ve compiled a year-in-review snapshot, which I offer to raise awareness with the hope that it will spark meaningful conversations (even just one) about what can be done to address and mitigate gun violence. With 27 people killed, hundreds of friends and family members are forever changed by the loss.

The following charts and analysis of Durham homicides in 2011 were created by leanoraminai.com using data from the Durham Police Department and other reports. 

Homicides by Month in 2011

Case Status 


Method of Homicides


Race of Victims


Race of Offenders


Gender of Victims


Gender of Offenders


Age of Victims and Offenders

Anyone with information about the unsolved homicide cases from 2011, or other violent crimes, is asked to call Durham CrimeStoppers at (919) 683-1200. CrimeStoppers offers anonymity and cash rewards for information leading to the arrest and indictment of felony crime offenders.

Durham Gospel Choir Brings Healing at the Holidays

Marlon E. West directs the 100 Men In Black Male Chorus on Dec. 13. Photo by Leanora Minai.As I’ve learned from parents who’ve lost children to homicide, there’s never really any closure, and the holidays can be especially difficult without others who understand the grief.

Last week, a local chapter of the support group, Parents of Murdered Children, hosted a remembrance dinner to support and comfort families coping with loss.

Many brought photographs of loved ones lost to homicide, placing them on a table at the front of a room inside the main Durham County Library.

There was the picture of Luciano Alejandro Cabrera, 21, killed earlier this year. In a framed photo near his, Willis Yates, 33, smiled with his daughter. He was shot in a home invasion. And there was the photo of Thomas Spruill, 25, wearing a Yankees cap. He was shot in a car.

The dinner on Dec. 13 featured gospel music (video below) by Durham’s 100 Men In Black Male Chorus under the direction of Marlon E. West.

“We are here tonight on the basis of everyone who has lost a loved one,” West said. “Our hearts and our prayers go out. We know that there’s healing in God, and the music that we sing tonight, we pray that you’ll find healing in that music.”

This video outtake features testimonials from several parents during a song performed by Semaj Munford, 10, a member of the chorus.

Film Outtake: Neighborhood Prayer Vigil for 2010 Homicide Victim

As part of the reporting and fieldwork for my short documentary film, I attend vigils and remembrance ceremonies for homicide victims in Durham.

Last September, I attended a prayer vigil for Rayshawn Cotton, 29. He was driving on Holloway Street in Durham on March 8, 2010, when he was shot. His car crashed into a tree, and he died two days later at Duke University Hospital.

Cotton’s homicide, one of 25 murders in Durham in 2010, remains unsolved, according to his mother, Betty Cotton, whom I spoke with briefly this morning.

“I take one day at a time,” she said.

The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham hosted the prayer vigil for Rayshawn Cotton, his family and friends on Sept. 18, 2010, on Hinson Drive in Durham.

The Religious Coalition hosts prayer vigils after homicides “to honor and publicly recognize the human worthiness of the victim, to comfort family and friends,” and “to sanctify and bring healing to the site where the violence occurred,” according to the group’s website.

Since 1997, the Religious Coalition has conducted more than 200 vigils.

In today’s outtake, a local pastor leads prayer and song before family and friends of Cotton release red balloons in Cotton's memory. Anyone with information about the homicide case is asked to call Durham CrimeStoppers at (919) 683-1200.

‘War Toy’ Swap Yields Lessons for Kids and Parents

Justice Drayton Collins,11, hands his toy gun to Tatiana DeBerry, Jordan High School student, during the “Peace Toys for War Toys” swap Dec. 1 in Durham. Photo by Leanora Minai.Justice Drayton Collins stood before a long table stacked with stuffed animals, puzzles, and board games. He picked up a new game in one hand, and in the other hand held tight to his tattered toy western gun with a silver muzzle and white plastic handle.

“Should I get the checkers, chess and tic-tac-toe all in one, or the amplifier and microphone,” he asked a friend standing nearby.

Justice, 11, then handed over the old toy gun, swapping it for the new amplifier and microphone. 

That exchange was just what organizers of “Peace Toys for War Toys” hoped would happen Thursday night in the Community Family Life and Recreation Center at Lyon Park in Durham.

“Many kids are very willing to get rid of their toy guns and knives and come in and get a brand new toy,” said Gail Neely, assistant director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, which hosted the Dec. 1 event. “Hopefully, they’ll start playing, and in turn, learn to be more cooperative in the world and have a more peaceful existence than bang, bang shoot ‘em up, which is what a lot of kids are living with in reality.” 

North Carolinians Against Gun Violence hosted the toy exchange, which drew 150 parents and children. Photo by Leanora Minai.In its eighth year in Durham, the event invites children to exchange their “war toys” for free “peace toys” that encourage creative, nonviolent behavior and activities, Neely said. About 150 parents and children gathered for the exchange, which included donated pizza and performances by Unleashed Dance Organization from Durham Technical Community College. Some families brought cans of food for the exchange that also drew volunteers from the city and county.

“Hi, everybody!” Tatiana DeBerry, Jordan High School student and member of the Durham Youth Commission, exclaimed as the first throng of children approached the tables to pick a toy.Tatiana DeBerry hands Gap Barbie to Elise Lawrence, 3. Photo by Leanora Minai.

Jenny Uba, 10, found herself torn over the offerings. She couldn’t decide between a diary with a heart-shaped lock and a star-shaped wristwatch.

“You can write in it, all the thoughts that you feel,” said DeBerry, who wore a Santa hat.

Jenny, whose mother brought canned food to donate, picked the watch.

“I think it will help me know what time it is,” Jenny said.

Neely said the exchange educates parents on the impact toys have on teaching children about violence and ways to resolve conflict.

“It’s more for the parents to get them thinking about what they want the child to learn when they’re giving that gift or buying a toy for their own child,” she said.  “The toy is a learning tool.”