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NEW ORLEANS – Dear Mom, this memorial year is hard.
Each October, Jasmine Groves holds a memorial service in honor of her late mother. Standing outside her modest Baton Rouge apartment on an unusually brisk morning for the Delta, Groves reads aloud a poem she wrote to mark the milestone.
My insides feel dead. I just want to go back to Alabo and be young again. And look at your beautiful face.
Her mother Kim was murdered by a hit man 20 years ago – a hit man hired by a New Orleans police officer. The story of the corruption that killed her is kept alive by her daughter, who was a day shy of 13 when she saw her mom for the last time.
“I went to answer the phone,” Groves said, clearing her throat. “A friend of hers was like, 'Kim just got shot. I think she's dead.'"
Groves rushed outside to find her mother on the ground at the corner, steps away from their home in New Orleans’ infamous Ninth Ward, with a gunshot to the head.
"The thing that was amazing [was] that even though the bullet had knocked her brains out, within her eyes you could see the soul of her saying, 'I'm sorry I have to leave you guys,'” she remembered.
Last month was Groves' 32nd birthday, the same age as her mother when she was gunned down. She has two children of her own now. And a smiling picture of her mother leans against the living room wall; Hurricane Katrina destroyed all the others.
I know God has a reason. He needed his angel. But for 20 years I have been empty.
New Orleans police officer Len Davis had Kim Groves killed for reporting to his department that he'd brutalized a kid in the neighborhood. Davis was recorded on a federal wiretap ordering Groves’ murder and celebrating when he learned she was dead. He was found guilty in 1996 and sentenced to death. But Davis remains alive on death row, and two decades later, Groves' family is still awaiting the outcome of a pending federal civil rights lawsuit.
'Gangsters in blue'
I keep seeing the hole in your head that came after the trigger was pulled and the gun said ‘Pow!”
Davis was a well-known corrupt cop in a city with plenty of them. Within months of Davis ordering the kill, another police officer, Antoinette Frank, killed an off-duty officer in a triple-murder at a Vietnamese restaurant.
New Orleans had 424 murders that year, according to FBI statistics, earning the unwanted title of murder capital of the world. And according to Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University, the city’s police department was as tough as its streets.
"Len Davis were [sic] gangsters in blue, that's the only way to describe it. It was the worst police department I had ever seen or heard of,” Scharf said. “It wasn't everybody, it was in pockets, but it was there. It’s in this context that the Len Davis incident has to be understood going backwards and forwards.”
Davis was found guilty 18 years ago, along with triggerman Paul "Cool" Hardy and getaway driver Damon Causey. But he was the only one sentenced to death. Since then, his case has been tied up with appeals. Groves' family filed a federal civil rights suit against the city in 1995, but a judge stalled it until Davis’ appeals are exhausted, leaving the family in limbo.
“It's injustice for our family,” Jasmine said. “Len Davis is still on death row. I mean, he can go back and forth to court whenever he wants, but no one considers the family who has to go through this. Over and over and over again.”
New Orleans officials declined America Tonight’s interview request, saying the city does not comment on pending litigation. But on the anniversary of Groves' death, City Councilman Jason Williams presented her daughter with a proclamation from the city honoring her mother's courage.
“[Jasmine Groves] has worked very hard to keep that story, that incident, alive to make sure that her mother's courage isn't forgotten,” Williams said. “We gave her a proclamation from the city of New Orleans honoring her mother's commitment to public safety, to fairness, to doing the right thing, to really being a hero.”
For Groves, it was an extraordinary moment, two decades in the making .
“I can't even express the feeling because it never happened. I mean we never was told sorry,” she said. “For someone to come and apologize and actually sit [at the memorial] the whole time, it was just amazing.”
Recruiting under a cloud
It was 911 I called to come and help save you, yet they knew it was their own kind who killed you.
New Orleans police abuses and subsequent cover-ups prompted not one, but two, federal consent decrees – the second one still in place.
“We patched some things up, but they were literally patched up,” Williams said. “A couple of guys were dealt with, taken off the force, prosecuted, but there was never an addressing of the culture of that type of policing.”
It's a culture that both Williams and Sharf said is echoed in police forces across the country, including Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of police sparked international outrage.
“You can be poor, but when you're poor and there's draconian policing of just your neighborhoods, that's going to create unrest,” Williams said. “That's going to create a problem.”
Scharf sees the similarities too, but emphasizes that Groves' murder was exceptional in its horror.
“The killing of Kim Groves was capital murder: premeditated, vicious, retaliatory murder,” Scharf said. “I don't think anybody's saying that's true of Ferguson. But the racial divide in terms of perception of the police is very similar.”
The shooting of Mike Brown and its aftermath brought about more scrutiny of law enforcement tactics across the nation, including in New Orleans. Last week, the New Orleans Inspector General's Office alleged that five NOPD special victims unit detectives had ignored numerous sex crimes, including the case of a 2-year-old brought to the hospital with a sexually transmitted disease.
Scharf said this kind of negligence is a relic of the Lens Davis era, which still haunts the city, in many ways hindering reform. It's difficult for a police department to recruit, he said, when it sits under a dark cloud, trailed by scandal.
“Cultures change glacially. They change so slow. And to expect otherwise is probably naïve,” Scharf said. “The Len Davis murder of Kim Grove, which is about as horrific as it gets, there's this context of disorder that both led to the case and followed the legacy from there.”
As the city wrestles with that legacy, Jasmine Groves – who is working toward becoming a juvenile probation officer – says she’s determined to keep the memory of her mother, and the story of what happened to her, alive.
“I want it to be that Kim Groves' voice and memory be heard everywhere so others could believe they are Kim Groves. And I hope these families who's going through this can also be a Jasmine Groves and stand up for your loved ones,” Jasmine said. “I'm going to let the world remember Kim Groves. She will live on.”