DNA and ‘The Banality of Evil’

Janecia Peters, 25-year-old "Grim Sleeper" victim

Janecia Peters, 25-year-old "Grim Sleeper" victim

The intersection of Figueroa and Slauson in South Los Angeles is an unremarkable one, a mundane swath fronting a gas station, an old train right of way, and a Harbor freeway overpass. It is the site of a spate of serial murders committed during a ten-year period by serial rapist and murderer Chester Dewayne Turner.

Like the Grim Sleeper serial killer, Turner, aka the South Side Slayer, stalked South L.A. from 1987 to 1998 in pursuit of African American female victims. Turner’s background fit the banal profile of the misogynist sexual predator operating right under the nose of local law enforcement. He was a “cipher” who bounced in and out of menial jobs; unstable, irresponsible, abusive towards and financially dependent on the women in his life.

While Turner was an obvious miscreant, Lonnie David Franklin, the recently arrested suspect in the Grim Sleeper murders, was a bit more complex. Neighbors have described him as a stable, congenial Mr. Fix-It type whose only known “quirks” were “issues” with women (including, apparently, showing off nude pictures he’d taken of and underwear he’d collected from various women) and a nebulous criminal record.

Franklin’s street was not far from my own, in a generally quiet well-kept area of single family homes that lazy mainstream media hacks are fond of dismissing as “gritty” and crime-ridden. Franklin’s arrest was made possible through the decades’ long struggle for visibility waged by the victims’ families and community activists like Margaret Prescod, who founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders in the 1980s.

The LAPD’s identification of the serial murder pattern was first reported in a 2008 article by white LA Weekly journalist Christine Pelisek, who dubbed the killer the “Grim Sleeper.” Shortly after Franklin’s arrest Pelisek stated that she had been deluged with film and TV queries about the case. Pelisek’s comments on the budding media interest are telling. As of this date there have been no TV movies on the South Side slayer case nor, for that matter, any mainstream dramatic treatment on serial murders of black women.

Given this disparity, it is not difficult to see a big budget Nancy Grace-style treatment with Pelisek at the center. Because Franklin and Turner are black male killers of black women, it is safe to say that there will be no cable-ready film made psychoanalyzing their childhoods, no Lifetime channel melodrama on the lives and last days of their victims trumpeted in flashy national billboard campaigns, and no pathos inspiring media blitz chronicling the anguish that these murders elicited in South L.A. communities.

Rather, what has captivated much of the mainstream media is not the hide-in-plain-sight atrocity of a prolific killer of black women puttering innocuously about his well-maintained single family home, but the 21st century “marvel” of familial DNA . Without the familial DNA piece, it’s doubtful there would be any continuing national coverage of the story. Sensing a national angle and an easy way of redeeming its image as a print relic repository for the white Westside, the L.A. Times has outdone itself with daily coverage on the case’s DNA trail. Mainstream media fixation on the DNA evidence has eclipsed focus on the victims’ families as well as consideration of the case’s double-edged implications for communities of color in the U.S.

According to Brandeis law professor Jeffrey Rosen, “African-Americans represent about 13 percent of the United States population but 40 percent of the people convicted of felonies every year.” The wholesale over-incarceration of African American communities means that many African Americans are related to someone who has been convicted of a felony. Right-wing pundits and champions of unregulated familial DNA use would argue that since blacks are committing a disproportionate number of felonies they have every right to be subjected to the heightened scrutiny of DNA profiling.

Yet national data on sentencing indicates African Americans are over six times more likely to be convicted of and harshly sentenced for felonies than are whites who commit similar crimes. The proposed expansion of California’s DNA database to include the DNA of arrestees—the database is currently comprised of DNA from convicted felons—would further criminalize blacks and Latinos. Unchecked law enforcement use of familial DNA is almost certain to be a bellwether of civil liberties infringement for innocent people of color.

The initial marginalization of both the South Side Slayer and the Grim Sleeper cases were brutal testimony to the devalued lives of women of color in the mainstream media regime. With the arrest of Franklin, the grieving families of Janecia Peters, Valerie McCorvey, Princess Berthomieux, Alicia Anderson, Lachrica Jefferson, Mary Lowe, Bernita Sparks, Barbara Ware, Thomas Steele, Henrietta Wright and Debra Jackson might be able to achieve some degree of closure.

In the ultimate yet uniquely American irony, science has fleetingly “humanized” the lives of victims deemed expendable by the media regime. Yet uncritical embrace of familial DNA will potentially reinforce the very disenfranchising conditions that allow a vicious predator like the Grim Sleeper to “sleep” for two decades.

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.


  1. LEE says

    Good article with one crucial error. Chester Turner IS NOT the South Side Slayer. He didn’t commit any of the murders attributed to SSS. Other serial killers did. Louis Craine did two or three, Daniel Siebert did two, Michael Hughes did one and Ivan Hill did one. But most are still unsolved, so SSS could still be out there. And he’s not going to be caught if the media tells the public that he’s already been apprehended.

    To Mad Jayhawk above, you complain about racism, and then suggest that white men have a gene for serial murder. There was a white man who had ideas like that. Some guy called Hitler. Black people need to stop kidding themselves that this is a white-only problem. I’ve listed four black serial killers in the previous paragraph and that’s just SoCal. There are loads of black serial killers. There are loads of white serial killers.

    The reason there didn’t used to be black serial killers is that they tend to kill black prostitutes. And in the past, if a white detective has 10 murdered black prostitutes and one murdered middle-class white woman, we know which he was going to investigate. So black serial killers weren’t caught. That’s the racism you should be talking about. When we HUMANS stop the pathetic point scoring maybe more of these individuals will be caught.

  2. Mad Jayhawk says

    This was an unusual article. The author is right. Because it is a black-on-black crime it doesn’t get the same media treatment as a black-on-white or white-on-black crime. This is because the media even though it is predominately liberal in nature is racist. I woke up to this fact when I noticed the local channels were doing something very strange with crime stories. They highlighted crimes, every night, predominately committed by black men that they would not verbally identify as being black but they always did show a black face, usually not a glamor shot. Always. I cannot remember them ever doing that with a white criminal once I became aware of this little bit of editorial racism. It happened so often that I believe that it helped perpetuate the terrible stereotype that all black guys are criminals.

    What is really unusual, to me, about this case is not how the media is handling it but the fact that the person involved may be a black serial killer. It is the first one I have ever heard of. I have no idea why white men and not black men are serial killers. Both races have members who kill people singularly or in small groups for whatever reason but only the whites have all the serial killers – the list is long. Is there a gene or something for serial killing that black men do not have? Women are not usually serial killers either although there have been a few of them in history.

    What this really shows, again, is that we have a lot of very sick people running around amongst us who seem to be normal but have a lot of hardcore problems. I have no idea how to keep something like this from happening again. These people who do this kind of thing give out clues and we just don’t see them. We only have to be alert and aware to pick up on them somehow. The poor families of the victims of this crime will have to live with the loss the rest of their lives. I cannot imagine. It breaks my heart.

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