Vigil honors lives lost in Camden
By Jason Nark
Courier Post Online, December 31, 2005

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CAMDEN - There were fewer murders in Camden than in prior years and for Sister Helen Cole, that alone is a sign of hope.

When Cole looks at the 33 candles she had lined up in a Fairview church Friday afternoon, she pointed out that each one represents a human being whose life was taken by another person in 2005.

"It's still too many," said Cole, standing in St. Joan of Arc Church on Alabama Road. "For me, one is too many, but for a city our size, we shouldn't have any more than seven or eight murders a year."

Cole started organizing candlelight vigils honoring Camden's murder victims in 1995, when the city had a record 60. There were 49 murders in 2004 and as of Friday afternoon, there were 35 victims in 2005 (the police homicide tally also includes three cases of aggravated manslaughter). Two escaped Sister Cole's candles: a 4-year-old boy slain in 1994 in a case that just recently closed, and Sean Brison, a 33-year-old man who was unidentified when this year's vigil was scheduled.

In November, when Camden was deemed the nation's most dangerous city for a second year in a row, authorities pointed to an 18-percent decrease in violent crimes as proof of the effectiveness of new policing strategies. Cole said the situation improved this year but was tempered by the shooting deaths of five men in the last two weeks, one just a few blocks from the church.

While violent crimes were down, authorities have solved only 39 percent of homicides this year. In 2004 and 2003, homicide clearance rates surpassed 80 percent. Bill Shralow, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said the 2005 clearance rate reflects a year of tough investigations.

"Unfortunately, we've had a lot of difficult cases where there has not been enough witnesses who came forward or physical evidence to make an arrest," said Shralow. "We really can't make a promise about clearance rates. What we can do is assure the public that each and every case is investigated with intensity and professionalism."

Vernon J. Geberth, a retired New York City police commander and author of textbooks on homicide investigation, said 39 percent was not a bad rate considering the majority of Camden's homicides are drug-related.

"Sometimes everybody knows who did it," said Geberth. "Sometimes the police and the detectives know, but the prosecutor doesn't necessarily want to go to trial with a person of bad character testifying against another person of bad character."

Geberth said the average clearance rate for cities was approximately 65 percent.

Sister Helen is not trained in the causes of violence and subsequent police investigations. She said her calling is simply being there for the family of the deceased.

"I feel like I have the strength to do this. This is what I'm supposed to do," said Cole.

She'll also be there, year after year, lighting a candle in a quiet, often empty church, in honor of the deceased themselves.

Reach Jason Nark at (856) 486-2473 or
Published: December 31, 2005

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