On Thanksgiving, Patricia Gomez set the table for herself and her three grandchildren, leaving empty the fifth seat - the one where her 14-year-old grandson used to sit.
Instead of a plate and silverware, there stood a framed picture of Deyquan Gomez, dressed in a red hooded sweatshirt, smiling slightly. The high school freshman was gunned down on a Hyde Park street on Feb. 10, Boston’s fifth homicide this year.
“We just said a little prayer and asked that God find the person who did this to him,” said his grandmother, a 53-year-old immigrant from Trinidad.
Gomez was one of 72 people killed in Boston during a year that saw a sharp increase in homicides - nearly 50 percent - including killings of at least two other 14-year-olds.
While a horrific quadruple murder in Mattapan - one of the victims was a 2-year-old - led to a series of headline-grabbing arrests, the families of most of the 2010 victims are - like Patricia Gomez - still waiting for their loved ones to be avenged.
With just one day to go before the end of the year, only 27 of the 72 killings reported, about 38 percent, had been solved as of yesterday. Cases are considered solved when a suspect is arrested or identified in an arrest warrant.
The cases that do go to trial are likely to result in guilty verdicts: The Suffolk District Attorney’s trial conviction rate remains high at 85 percent in 2010, which prosecutors and police attribute to taking time to build solid cases.
The number of homicides is not remarkable when compared with other cities that have similar populations. But it was a distressingly high for a city that had seen a decline in homicides in the past three years.
“It’s been challenging,” Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said in a telephone interview during which he vowed the majority of homicides would be cleared in the upcoming months. “My intention is to push this number up to 60 percent solved over the next year or so.”
The increase in 2010 is dramatic because it followed a year when police saw an especially low number of killings. At the time, Davis attributed the decrease to community policing strategies. Last year, there were 49 homicides reported, compared with 63 in 2008 and 66 in 2007.
This year, Davis, a former narcotics investigator, said police believe the increase is largely the result of more recently released felons engaging in drug activity.
But the patterns that have marked Boston homicides over the years remained the same: Most of the victims were black, male, in their late teens and 20s, and killed by guns. And the number of cases solved remained below the national average of 60 percent for cities of similar size, according to FBI statistics.
Police solved several high-profile homicides this year, including the shooting of Jaewon Martin and Nicholas Fomby-Davis, two 14-year-olds killed in the same month; the stabbing of Richel Nova, a Domino’s employee killed while delivering food; and the Sept. 28 killings of four people, including a 2-year-old boy, who were shot on Woolson Street in Mattapan.
The department’s ability to close those cases only frustrates Gomez, who in a recent interview said she had a difficult time getting phone calls returned from detectives even though her grandson lived with her and she is listed as next of kin on his death certificate. Police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll said detectives had been communicating with the boy’s father.
Driscoll said they had no updates about the killing of the teenager, an energetic but troubled boy who had started rebelling, stealing, staying out late, and smoking marijuana, his grandmother said. He was shot in the torso and found on the sidewalk on Cummings Highway.
“They found the people who killed all those people in Mattapan. Why can’t they find his killer? He’s nobody,” Gomez said. “That’s what I think. He’s nobody.”
John Cardoso, a 25-year-old Dorchester man just out of culinary school, was the city’s first homicide of the year. At about 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, he was on Geneva Avenue and Bowdoin Street, returning from a party, when he began arguing with an unidentified man police said he knew. The man, who had been drinking, pulled out a gun and shot Cardoso in the chest, striking his lungs and heart, police said.
Investigators recovered the gun and found witnesses, but a grand jury was unable to indict the alleged killer after Cardoso’s cousins, who were with him, refused to cooperate, Davis said.
“We believe they know who had the gun. We believe they know who was responsible, but they refused to work with us,” Davis said. “It’s a good example of a case that hasn’t gone forward because of the lack of cooperation among family members. It’s hard to comprehend, but it’s more common than you think.”
Many of 2010’s unsolved homicides are in grand jury, Davis said, but he declined to specify the number.
Still, he said the cases that continue to stymie police are those in which witnesses refuse to testify.
“When you go down this list of homicides that occurred, every one that we haven’t solved is largely due to the number of people who haven’t told us information that could clear the case,” Davis said.
In an interview at Cardoso’s family home, his relatives, who did not want to be named, said that the perception of many on the street is that police do not care about the safety of those who do speak up.
“The way police go about it, they want to solve the case, and that’s it to them,” said one male relative, who was not with Cardoso when he was killed.
Still, he said he would speak up about a crime, even if it meant putting himself at risk.
“I’ll stand on my feet like a man,” he said. “You’ve got to stand like a man in this world. Everybody dies some day.”
Gomez was more ambivalent.
“I guess they’re scared,” she said of potential witnesses. “If I saw somebody get killed, I wouldn’t say nothing. I mind my own business.”
Most police officers have a difficult time comprehending such fear, said Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant detective who now teaches criminal justice at Boston University.
“They will not be able to understand why someone wouldn’t want to come forward and give information, particularly in the most serious crimes,” he said. “People who live in communities fraught with this kind of violence do not see police as that kind of resource. They think, `if I call them, they’re going to check me for warrants.”‘
Many victims had criminal backgrounds and brushes with the police, and their relatives and friends might be apprehensive about cooperating with detectives based on their previous experiences with the justice system, said Tina Chery, the mother of a murder victim and founder of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Fields Corner.
“The lack of trust doesn’t happen because of a homicide,” she said. “It’s already there.”
Nolan pointed to a recent murder that resulted in two mistrials before prosecutors finally won a conviction. One of the key witnesses, LaToya Thomas Dickson, the girlfriend of one of the defendants, recanted her testimony during the second trial, but testified truthfully at the third. A judge sentenced her to two to three years for perjury, less than the four to five years prosecutors recommended.
“The message that will reiterate through these communities is that even when you do the right thing, you could be in harm’s way,” Nolan said of the perjury sentence. “Every time the system shows its rigidity and inflexibility, I think we dig ourselves into a hole that much deeper.”
Davis said the judge’s decision was tough, but authorities are bound by law. Prosecutors said they provided Dickson protection and argued she recanted because she still loved the defendant, not because she feared him.
“It’s not the police not understanding, it’s what the law says,” Davis said. “You can’t do the right thing halfway. You’re either on the team or not.”
Police said they have tried to improve their community policing by making the homicide unit more accessible to victims’ families. Two people in the unit are assigned to work directly with families. Every year police host a holiday party for murder victims’ relatives so they can meet detectives, police said.
Detectives visited Gomez at her Hyde Park home recently, but she said they had few updates. Her home, a well-kept house decorated with paintings of African art and a white artificial Christmas tree, was once loud and lively, with Deyquan blaring hip-hop music and dancing.
“Now it’s dead, as you can see,” she said. “Sometimes you come here, and you can’t tell anybody lives here. ... I miss him.”Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.