At 12:55 p.m., on the eve of the new year, a 17-year-old died from a gunshot wound he suffered a day earlier.
He was the 562nd person to be killed in Philadelphia in 2021.
And, as it would turn out, the last homicide victim of the year.
His name was Nasheem Choice, and three days later, on Jan. 3, he would have celebrated his 18th birthday.
Katrina Burrell didn’t know Nasheem, or his family, who turned to GoFundMe to raise money to help bury him. A “wonderful young soul,” a relative wrote.
But Burrell, perhaps even more than the hundreds of other families who lost loved ones to gun violence last year, knows how Nasheem’s family feels — and she has a message for them.
In 2020, Burrell’s 16-year-old son, Diyaan Smith, was the last person murdered in Philadelphia when he was gunned down near their West Oak Lane home.
He was the city’s 499th homicide — an agonizing distinction, that came with fleeting focus. Numbers tend to attract attention around here; the people behind them, not always so much.
In a city that records hundreds of homicides and thousands of shootings every year, there is always another victim, another loss, another family left behind to trudge through the fog of grief and trauma. And in 2021, there was no shortage of mourning — we ended the year with the most homicides in the city’s modern history.
The day that her son died, Burrell, 47, had left him at home watching one of his favorite television shows on the couch while she went to a doctor’s appointment.
“I need to see you tonight,” she told him, suggesting that rather than visit friends or relatives for New Year’s Eve, he should stay in.
“I was always so afraid for my son because he was a Black boy, a Black teenager, because I had a couple of friends who lost their children, and I didn’t want to lose mine,” Burrell said.
Diyaan promised he’d be home. But a few hours later, Burrell received a call from two of her other children. Diyaan had left to go to a nearby neighborhood store. Minutes later, they’d heard gunshots outside and now Diyaan wasn’t picking up his phone. His younger brother, 11 at the time, saw emergency workers carry him away.
Burrell rushed to Einstein Hospital, but Diyaan was already gone. Later she would learn that someone had opened fire in the 1900 block of 68th Street, striking Diyaan multiple times. Three young men, around Diyaan’s age, were arrested in connection to his killing that she and police believe was another of Philadelphia’s senseless and deadly neighborhood beefs. The trial of the first person who is suspected of being involved in Diyaan’s death is scheduled to begin in February.
In the year after her son’s murder, it became increasingly difficult for Burrell and her children to remain in the same house where she had last seen her son. On their way to work and school, there was no way to avoid the driveway, just steps away, where he was gunned down. Burrell feared for the safety of her other children.
About a week before the one-year anniversary of Diyaan’s death, Burrell, a site supervisor for a nonprofit that provides services for people with intellectual disabilities, was finally able to move the family out of the city.
“It’s a relief,” she said of the move she longed to make.
But she’s not completely leaving Philadelphia behind.
Diyaan always had a soft spot for people in need, a kindness that Burrell believes grew from his knowledge of her own past struggles — she’s now 15 years sober.
“He always gave homeless people money,” she said. “And now I do the same, for them, but also for him.”
On the afternoon of Dec. 31, Burrell and her family and friends honored Diyaan by handing out food and clothing to people experiencing homelessness and addiction in Kensington, a neighborhood buckling under both.
They handed out more than 100 bags full of supplies that students and faculty at Mastery Charter High School Lenfest Campus — Diyaan’s old high school — helped them collect. He would have graduated from Mastery this year.
Diyaan loved few things more than playing video games, but after graduation he planned to go into construction.
It saddens her, how close her son was to fulfilling some of his dreams.
Burrell doesn’t remember exactly how she found out that her son had been the last person killed in Philadelphia in 2020. Maybe a reporter told her, maybe she read it somewhere.
What she does remember is that it became a tragic touchstone, at least for a little while — a number in stories and spreadsheets to mark the other pandemic that afflicts our city.
“I don’t know if it makes it any worse or different, being the first or the last or anywhere on that list,” she said. “I just know that there’s just too many.”
Even if they never meet, Burrell wants Nasheem Choice’s family to know she’s here. It helps, she said, to know you’re not alone.
She also has a message for them: “Pray, and pray, and pray some more, because you’re going to need it.”