Joint Committee on Victims Services
May 4, 2016
Chairman Coley and members of the committee, my name is LaShawn Ajamu. I currently live in Richfield, Ohio.
Nineteen years ago yesterday, on May 3, 1997, I was asleep after a long day at work. In my dream there was a bell ringing. It kept getting louder. It seemed to go on and on, and then I woke up and realized that it was my phone ringing. I was not dreaming. I came to my senses and answered what turned out to be, for me and my family, the proverbial middle of the night phone call. The call none of us want to ever receive.
The woman on the phone identified herself as a nurse at Mercy Medical Center. She asked me my name. Then she asked me if I have a brother named James Nero. I said yes. And then my dream became a nightmare, because the nurse told me that James had been shot in the head, and that I need to get to the hospital as soon as possible.
I guess I still wasn’t fully awake, because it still hadn’t yet registered to me what this meant. After I hung up and realized who I had been talking with, I became very numb and all I could think about was getting to the hospital to find out what was going on with my brother. I didn’t have a car, so I started walking from my apartment to the hospital – it wasn’t that far, but it felt like miles.
My brother James was just twenty years old. We had just been together earlier that day. I thank God because our last time together he hugged me and told me that he loved me. At least I have that to remember him with.
James was a passenger in a car with two female friends when there was a minor accident. I don’t know who was at fault, but the other driver did not want to take responsibility. My brother insisted that he provide his insurance card. The driver went to get his insurance card but instead came back with a gun. He shot my brother in the face, hitting him in the eye. Then he shot James again, point blank as he lay there on the ground.
James was engaged to be married. He left his fiancé with their 18-month-old son, Jaron. Being so young, James did not have much in the way of savings or life insurance. We were able to bury him with the help of our family and church community. But I can’t remember anyone from the county or the prosecutors office offering any sort of assistance.
Terry Freeman is the man who killed James. He claimed it was self-defense. He said my brother was too aggressive. It also happens that he is the son of the former county sheriff, so of course they made James out to be the bad guy. The killer was found “not guilty” and walked off without being held accountable. If he was so scared, maybe I can understand one shot, but once my brother was on the ground with a bullet in his head, that second shot turned self-defense into nothing less than murder.
When the court case was over, James was still dead. There was no help except from our own community. My parents, my two other brothers, James’s fiancé and my nephew never received any information about resources available to help us deal with the situation in which we found ourselves. None of us had ever experienced traumatic loss like this. We did not know how to deal with the pain and grief of losing our loved one to murder. There needs to be assistance available to any family that experiences such a traumatic loss. For us, we had only ourselves and our church community. From the government, there was nothing.
I am here today because I have hope that this committee can help put something in place here in Ohio that will help other families dealing with the kind of situation that my family endured. We were lucky in a way, because at least we were a part of a faith community. Sadly, not everyone has that, and even for those that do have strong community support, most faith communities are not set up to offer anything more than prayers and love. Those are vital, but they are not the sort of tangible supports that government can be providing.
What would be helpful? What did we need?
- Trained grief counselors would be a good start.
- We needed someone with the knowledge of how to negotiate getting James’ body released so that we could bury him.
- We needed help paying for a funeral and a burial plot – and not just a possible reimbursement at some unknown point in the future.
- Because James’ killer had all of these friends in the prosecutors office and the sheriff’s department, it turns out we needed our own advocate in the court system – both to defend our dead brother and to not let that killer get away without being held accountable.
- We needed independent victim service providers who are thinking about those impacted by crime regardless of allegations against the victim. My parents didn’t do anything wrong. My nephew, who was 18-months-old, didn’t do anything wrong. But because they made James out to be a bad guy, all the help went to his killer.
- It would have been helpful if someone had apologized that this had happened. A simple “I’m sorry this tragedy happened to your family” would have helped.
- James’s son has grown up without a father. What’s out there to help him? Why, over the course of 19 years now, has no one thought to reach out to us with any information?
I have recently become aware of the Ohio Crime Victims Compensation Fund, and we are exploring our options with that. But I had to find it. Nobody told us about it. That should be the first thing that happens – before the police leave. There needs to be a simple guide and a list of resources that can help the loved ones of murder victims. There needs to be someone who comes to visit and offers to talk through the possibilities. It’s so hard, right after the crime. My brain was in such a fog. It was enough trouble just getting out of bed some days.
In our case, the local politics lined up everyone in the system against us. We got nothing, and the killer got a pass. That must be unacceptable.
This is important for you to address, so please listen carefully. Here in Ohio, county government victim assistance is most often housed within the office of the county prosecutor. I’m here to tell you that if the crime victim is somehow found in disfavor, or if the victims’ family disagrees with the prosecutors’ office, their services dry up. That must be unacceptable. Victim services personnel should not be beholden to the county prosecutor. Victim services should not be housed in the offices of the county prosecutor, and victim service personnel should not be beholden to a decision-maker in criminal case proceedings.
I’ve been reading about the Ohio Crime Victims Compensation Fund, and I have some concerns about that. I want to be clear that this does not apply to me, but did you know that if a crime victim was previously convicted of a completely unrelated crime, they are ineligible for assistance? Really? How can that be fair? That sounds like it is designed to keep hurting people down instead of offering them a hand up. You have got to change that.
In closing, because I know this committee is also concerned with how the state will carry out executions, I want to say this as a family member of a murder victim. My family – we don’t need or want an execution. Not even for Mr. Terry Freeman, who put two bullets in my brother’s head.
Yes, our loved one was murdered. We want the truth about what happened, and we want the killer held accountable in a way that he can’t do it again. No amount of killing is going to bring our loved one back, and we certainly don’t want the state using our pain and suffering to justify another family losing their loved one – even if they are guilty.
Also, the state makes mistakes. I know about this because my husband was wrongly sent to death row in this state for a crime he had nothing to do with. I met Kwame Ajamu after he was out of prison but before he was exonerated. He is one of nine people wrongly sent to death row in Ohio. That’s a whole other story for another day, but for the purposes of this committee and its members, know this: No murder victim family wants an innocent person held accountable for the loss of their loved one. Not only does that create more victims, but it leaves the real killer free to kill again. Get rid of the death penalty and you won’t risk executing the wrong person.
In our case local politics let a killer go free and kept my family from getting the help that it needed. I’m here because I want to be assured no other family will have to suffer in the same way.