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Every life is meaningful

Police in Aberdeen, S.D., arrested a man this past week in connection with the murder of Cynthia Barnes, a street prostitute who died after being pushed through a third-floor apartment window at 59th and Kedzie in July of 2011.

Court documents indicate authorities believe former Chicagoan Daniel Neasom, 29, was responsible for Barnes’ fall; he later jumped out the window himself to flee police, suffering a broken neck in the process.

I can’t say a whole lot of folks had been holding their breath for this case to be solved, nothing at all like the attention being generated by last week’s shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton, the promising King College Prep honors student who had recently returned from the Presidential inauguration.

But the arrest of Neasom, 29, for Barnes’ murder caught my attention because of a series of stories I wrote in the wake of her demise.

As some of you might recall, I attempted not so much to sort out the circumstances of Barnes’ death as the circumstances of her life — how she came to be living on the street, the men she knew, the friends who took her in, the mother who traced Barnes’ problems back to childhood and the six children Barnes had rarely seen since giving birth.

Many readers let me know they appreciated those stories, but others made it clear they did not believe Barnes was worthy of the attention and that I would have been better served writing about the “good” people who get killed.

It was a reminder to me of the concept that, just as some lives are considered more worthy than others, so are some murder victims; hardly a new lesson after decades in an industry that helps make those determinations, but food for thought again this week with the national attention on Pendleton’s death.

The death of Cynthia Barnes was never much of a whodunit — whatever mystery there was being mostly a product of the police being stingy with information.

Investigators at the time never released the identity of the suspect they said had jumped from the window after pushing Barnes. But they said the man had been hospitalized with a broken neck and fractured skull, leaving the impression his recovery was unlikely. For all intents and purposes, it appeared the individual, now identified as Neasom, would be punished enough without ever going to court.

But authorities now say Neasom, in whose apartment the altercation took place, did recover and moved to Aberdeen to live with a family member.

This past June, police here asked Aberdeen officials to obtain a DNA swab from Neasom, who they now say also suffered stab wounds in a fight with Barnes. They were checking to see if Neasom’s DNA matched a sample taken from a blood-stained knife recovered at the scene. A previous blood draw taken from Neasom was unusable for DNA purposes because of “an agent in the blood tube,” records show.

It’s unlikely anyone else was involved because police arrived to find the apartment barricaded from the inside.

Cynthia Barnes, 39, was homeless and had been living on the street most of her life since running away from home. She was a drug addict, supported her habit by turning tricks, and had served two terms in prison for her involvement in violent robberies. That combination caused her to lose parental rights to her children, some of whom were taken away from her in the hospital as soon as they were born.

All in all, she was not a very sympathetic figure, unlike Hadiya Pendleton, 15, whose early achievements and high hopes for the future have brought an outpouting of concern following her senseless death.

Yet in my reporting on Barnes, I found people who loved her and valued her company as a friend. And I met her children, doing surprisingly well considering what they’d been through, who longed for a relationship with their mother should she ever get well.

And this made me think of the “punk,” as Mayor Rahm Emanuel understandably referred to the assailant who fired indiscriminately into the park, killing Hadiya with gunshots probably meant for somebody else.

Even before he fired those shots, that young man probably realized his own life was not particularly valued by the society around him and that his own violent death would cause no public outcry or outrage.

In those circumstances, why then would we expect such an individual to make distinctions about who was on the receiving end of his bullets?

Somehow we have to get to a point where each of these killings matters to us, not just the ones where the victims sound like somebody we would have liked.

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