Life and Death in Queens

One month into our reporting class on “Life and Death in Queens,” our professor handed us press releases from the office of the Queens County District Attorney. Each announced a local homicide and included a synopsis of the crime and the names of the defendant and the victim.

See interactive map by Rashida Kamal

The 15 incidents lack a pattern, but they point to a reality where people are often killed for no significant reason. Some grew out of random acts like robbery and carjacking or disputes that went too far. Some of the defendants had been in and out of jail; others were first-time offenders. At their core, however, these cases suggest a larger theme: widespread, random acts of violence that often go unnoticed by the larger city.

In these cases, the defendants went to trial rather than plead guilty. Our task was to uncover the stories behind the murders: Who were the people involved? What events led to the crime? Which family members survived the victim, and how do they make sense of their loss?

How They Died (visualization by Navraj Narula)

The cases were difficult, but they also offered us leads for good stories. Investigations generate trial transcripts, photos, witness rosters and letters, among other things. Some of us found these in files at the Queens County Criminal Court. Others were not so lucky. Our task was to seek out the information needed to reconstruct the story.

How do you access a court file, locate a stranger’s phone number or convince someone who may distrust you to be interviewed? Over the five weeks that we worked on these pieces, we learned how to navigate not just the online listings of people who became our sources, but their emotions and lives.

We covered the borough from Astoria to Far Rockaway, South Flushing and Jamaica. We spoke to people who cried as they told us about what happened to them. We went to prisons. We learned when to question and listen and how to give traumatized sources the space to let their feelings breathe.

The pieces we produced are raw, intimate and sometimes gruesome portrayals of the lives of the defendants, victims and others affected by these cases. The youngest victim, Dilan Criollo, was only nine months old at the time of his death. The oldest, Wayne Graves, was 62. Some of these crimes occurred over six years ago; others as recently as 2014.

How Old Were They? (visualization by Navraj Narula)

In 2015 alone, there were 60 murders in Queens, according to the New York City Police Department. The murders are more than just numbers — they are Laseam and Gary and Ezra and Barbie and Robert; they are defendants, victims, family members and all the others whose lives were forever changed.

– By Nicole Einbinder, Natasha Frost, Sarah Gibson, Tiancheng Zhang