Rachel Morin is dead, and that is a tragedy. But another kind of calamity is emerging as political forces use her killing as a weapon.

Republicans, Democrats and some in the media would be wise to heed the ghost of Willie Horton, whose story still haunts us 36 years after his name became an American code word for connecting race and crime.

We are in danger of making the same mistake we did then — feeding justifiable horror over a terrible crime into the grinder of political tribalism, with a travesty of generational consequences coming out on the other end.

Since a Salvadoran man was arrested last weekend and charged with murder in her death, it’s been hard to escape the sound of political red meat in the making.

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On Day 1.

“The American citizens are not safe because of failed border policies,” said Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, a Republican, blaming President Joe Biden and Congress.

On social media.

“ANOTHER one of Crooked Joe Biden’s Illegal Immigrant Criminals was just charged with raping and murdering ANOTHER innocent American woman!” former President Donald Trump said on Truth Social.

On TV.

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“Joe Biden, rather than getting serious about immigrant crime, is about to give amnesty to more than a million illegal aliens,” U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and Trump ally, said on CNN on June 16. “That’s what we should be doing before we start threatening the rights of law-abiding Americans.”

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore takes questions during a news conference in the Maryland State House on Thursday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

From Annapolis.

“I’m infuriated. And our state is still mourning. I mean, this is a mother of five. Someone who had her life ahead of her, many celebrations with her family ahead of her, and her life was cut short,” Gov. Wes Moore said on FOX news, blaming Trump for derailing a bipartisan immigration bill earlier this year.

Morin, a 37-year-old from Harford County who owned a cleaning business, went missing during an evening run on the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail in Bel Air last summer. Search crews found her body the next day.

Investigators matched DNA from the scene to that of a man wanted for violently attacking a girl during a Los Angeles home invasion in early 2023, authorities said. That led them to Victor Antonio Martinez Hernandez, 23, who was also wanted in the January 2023 killing of a woman in El Salvador.

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Following his arrest at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, bar, Hernandez was extradited to Maryland on Thursday. A judge on Friday ordered him held without bail pending trial.

Those appear to be the facts, and so is this: Hernandez entered the United States illegally.

And that propels this killing in Maryland into the national fight over immigration, something that would not have happened if Morin were from El Salvador and Hernandez from Bel Air.

A generation ago, a different Maryland crime got the same kind of attention. In 1988, groups supporting then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s White House bid launched a television attack ad featuring William R. Horton.

Horton was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murder in Massachusetts when he was released on a weekend furlough program. He fled to Prince George’s County and, a year later, raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend in Oxon Hill on April 3, 1987. Horton was Black, his victims white.

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The ad, aimed at Bush’s rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, showed two black-and-white images of Horton while a narrator intoned that Dukakis “allowed murderers to have weekend passes.”

The 1988 campaign ad, created by a group supporting then Vice President George Bush, attacked Gov. Mike Dukakis as weekend crime because of a weekend furlough program that released Willie Horton. Horton went on to rape a women in Maryland and stab her boyfriend.
The 1988 TV ad "Weekend Passes," created by a group supporting Vice President George Bush's White House run, attacked Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as weak on crime. It took aim at a Massachusetts weekend furlough program that enabled the release of Willie Horton, who fled to Maryland, raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend.

While the ad didn’t mention the woman’s race, it was the image of a Black man sexually assaulting a white woman that stuck, amplified by news coverage that played on our worst instincts.

Democrats responded by saying they, too, could get tough on crime. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton made it part of his presidential campaign platform, going on to defeat Bush in 1992.

Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, commonly known as the crime bill. It pumped billions into the states, incentivizing them to pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws, build more prisons and hire more police as crack cocaine addiction spread.

In truth, crime numbers peaked the year before the law was passed, and its impact fell disproportionally on Black Americans whose communities were awash in crack cocaine.

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The crime bill wasn’t responsible for all that came after, but there’s no denying that incarceration rates rose for the next 14 years.

They doubled in Maryland, where a Democratic mayor made “broken windows” policing the fashion in Baltimore and a Republican governor in Annapolis rolled out “Project Exile” and crime hot spots.

The parallels between Willie Horton — still serving two life sentences plus 85 years at the Jessup Correctional Institution — and today are clear.

The immigration system is broken, with Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for the failure to pass significant reform since 1986.

Americans say they want a fix, just as they did about crime 30 years ago. A February Gallup Poll found that it was our No. 1 worry, with people saying they want fewer immigrants coming into the country.

Most of us don’t understand just how complex immigration policy can be, or that U.S. immigration officials turned Hernandez back at the border in 2023 three times before he slipped through and made his way to Maryland.

That’s when the horrendous attack on Morin and her family’s suffering comes into this.

“It takes and shatters,” Morin’s mother, Patty, told WJZ after the arrest was announced.

This time, it’s the image of a brown man attacking a white woman.

We journalists lean into any public appetite for a story. The cumulative effect right now is the unmistakable, screaming demand to pay attention to the Morin murder, that there are bigger issues involved. Compare this coverage to what’s been reported on the shooting death of a boxer in Odenton, or the Baltimore man who police say was taken to the outskirts of Annapolis for execution.

Maybe the New York Post was the worst, not surprising given its long penchant for lurid crime coverage. “Open Border Killer,” its headline read, with photos of Morin and Hernandez juxtaposed on the cover.

You can tell where this is going. Consider the question captured by my Banner colleague Tim Prudente at Martin State Airport on Thursday when Hernandez was led from an airplane in chains.

“Mr. Hernandez, did you do it? Did you target Rachel?” a TV reporter shouted.

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If Biden loses in November or the margins in Congress dramatically shift to the GOP, Democrats could easily take the same lesson they did from Horton’s story and call for far tougher immigration laws.

A lot has changed since 1988. News media is less relevant than social media algorithms on whether this affects the outcome in November. Crime is down, even if fear of it — and political rhetoric that plays on those fears ― is not.

There are far more Hispanic voters today, and while they don’t vote as a bloc, how kind will they be to messages that stereotype all immigrants?

I don’t know where the solution to all this lies, but I know you won’t find it on a trail in Harford County or the tarmac at Martin State Airport.

Instead, the search for an answer begins on a terrace in Annapolis.

On July 4, a few dozen people will stand outside Founding Father William Paca’s stately home, raise their right hands and take the oath of citizenship.

America needs immigrants not just for the unfilled jobs but because many of them imbue this country with greatness, whether they arrive with documents or without.

We need them. Not another Willie Horton.