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Getting Away With Murder?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Nearly 800 deaths in Maryland remain classified as “undetermined” — meaning that the medical examiner cannot identify a cause of death for the victim.  In other words, based on the available evidence, the state’s medical examiner cannot rule out any of the four manners of death (accident, suicide, homicide or natural causes).  The families of the victims are left with ambiguity about the cause of death and are unable to experience closure regarding the loss of their loved one. 

Those victims’ cries for help were never heard, and their silence in the grave condemns us all.

Over the past decade in Baltimore, according to Baltimore Examiner reporter Stephen Janis, an average of 300 deaths per year were classified as “undetermined.”  This is something of a national record and certainly not one that Baltimore can brag about.  [In comparison, Janis reports that only 76 deaths in Washington, D.C., were classified “undetermined” in 2004.]  Medical examiners explain that it is impossible to determine if the death of a drug addict is caused by an intentional or accidental overdose or from the work of another person.

The families and friends of victims think that the lack of an investigation into the cause of death shows disrespect for the victims and a total disregard for those caught in the awful webs of criminal activity in the nation’s cities and back country areas.

As part of its investigation into the deaths of prostituted women, the Examiner filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for the names of women whose deaths remain “undetermined.”  They found that 26 women with histories of prostitution were victims of homicide in the last 10 years and that 19 of the cases remain unsolved.  Relatives believe that another two deaths of the prostituted women are homicides of their loved one.

The families of the victims, along with community activists, plan a candlelight vigil at 6 p.m. on Wednesday outside the office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.  These families are hoping that the vigil will highlight their “open wounds” and the pain that they are suffering because of the ambiguity surrounding their relative’s death.

If she had not died just before Christmas after a brief, intense battle with pancreatic cancer, Norma Hotaling would be right there on Wednesday evening standing vigil in Baltimore. 

After overcoming her own childhood sexual abuse and drug addictions and escaping her life as a prostituted woman and slave to a brutal pimp, Norma Hotaling resolved to transform her own horrible experiences into realistic help for others who were exploited in prostitution and rendered invisible to authorities and polite society.  Her efforts provided dignity and services for those caught in the “multitraumatic” evil that is prostitution.

By founding the SAGE Project [Standing Against Global Exploitation], a service agency for all survivors of sexual exploitation, Miss Hotaling rescued and restored hundreds of people who previously had no hope.  As an innovative and passionate leader committed to ending the commercial sex trade, she rescued girls who had lost their personhood while serving as a sex slave to some evil pimp or criminal network.  Her social programs have been replicated nationwide.  She was especially concerned about those, like the victims in Baltimore, who were headed for an “undetermined” death.

Norma established services led by peers — those who had “been there, done that” as she explained — who could help those who felt that they had no hope.  Norma became the voice of survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.  She worked to dissolved myths about prostitution. She sought to prove that prostitution was the world’s oldest oppression rather than a so-called sex worker’s profession.  She worked to end the claim that prostitution is a victimless crime.  She established “john” schools that taught first offenders about how prostitution harms women and communities.  She was a beacon of courage and an extraordinarily effective champion of victimized and marginalized children and women.

She also worked to teach public officials how to help victims — not by providing condoms and emotional support, but opportunities to get out of the bondage to pimps and criminal networks and the opportunity to heal and be restored to the same quality of life that freedom offers to all. She received numerous awards for her work, including recognition for Oprah Winfrey as an “Angel” who works to better the lives of others.  Norma Hotaling used her public speaking platform to describe experiences from her own prostitution that moved her audience to tears while educating them about the cruelty of prostitution.  She made it clear that almost everyone in prostitution had a burning desire to get out. 

Norma could have ended up a tragic statistic, but she turned her tragedy into heroism.  She urged people to stop treating human beings as commercial commodities.  She advocated for those who had no voice — just like those who stand in vigil in Baltimore in recognition of the humanity of those hundreds of anonymous women whose deaths seemingly warrant no investigation.

Norma used to say that caring for prostituted persons was like caring for orchids.  She said, “They die so easily.  But you take the dead-looking stem to someone who knows orchids and that person can look at the root and say, ‘Look!  There's still a little bit of life here.’”

On Wednesday in Baltimore, family and friends will ask public officials to recognize the humanity of those who died before they could be restored.  In memory of Norma Hotaling, I pray that Wednesday evening’s vigil will be successful in getting that message through to the Maryland bureaucracy that the cries of those victims of cruelty and inhumanity will finally be heard.

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