With Friends Like These ... 

Most murder victims in Memphis knew their killers.

Last week, 44-year-old Helen Sparks and 32-year-old Lechetta Duff were arguing over money at Duff's home in South Memphis. The fight became physical, and by the time police arrived, Duff had been fatally struck in the head. Sparks was charged with voluntary manslaughter.

According to local homicide statistics from last year, half of the city's homicides were committed by acquaintances of the victims. Fifteen percent were committed by relatives. Homicides were also more likely to occur as a result of an argument or altercation.

A recent story in The New York Times reported a national trend in rising homicide rates resulting from petty disputes and arguments. But Joe Scott, homicide director for the Memphis Police Department, says angry disputes have been Memphians' fatal motivation for years.

"It's been that way for a long time," Scott said. "You're 65 percent more likely to be killed by someone you know. That's not a new trend."

In 2005, there were 153 homicides, and 132 of those were classified as criminal homicides. The other 21 were considered justified, meaning they were cases of self-defense.

Twenty-nine percent of homicides were a result of arguments or altercations, and 15 percent were classified as domestic homicides, meaning they occurred between relatives. Only 8 percent were considered gang-related.

Other homicides occurred during a robbery or other crime (16 percent) or the cause was unknown (15 percent).

While police can deter gang killings and other crimes through youth education programs, Scott says there isn't much that can be done to stop two people from arguing in their homes.

"If someone decides they're going to kill you in the heat of passion, the best thing we can do as a community is make sure felons don't have guns," Scott said. "A lot of people who commit homicides have come through the [justice] system in the past."

Scott also advises people to stop and think before acting impulsively.

"If someone would back up and look at the situation, their anger may decelerate," Scott said. "If you can teach people to say wait a minute, I'm mad enough to kill right now, but let me think for 10 seconds and see if I'm still mad enough to kill."

At press time, the MPD has recorded 16 homicides in 2006. This time last year, there were 13.

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