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As 2021 Ends With One Of City's Highest Murder Rates In Years, Many Families Left Without Any Kind Of Justice

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Father Michael Pfleger led a New Year's Eve rally for peace on Friday, remembering all those killed by gun violence in Chicago this year.

In 2021, the city recorded one of its highest murder rates in years. But Chicago Police are touting a higher-than-average clearance rate for murder cases.

As CBS 2's Jackie Kostek reported Friday night, police said they have cleared 49.4 percent of homicides in 2021. But that still leaves hundreds of families to grieve the loss of their loved ones without any kind of justice.

That includes the family of Verndell Smith, a beloved dance team leader who was shot outside of a Dunkin Donuts in May.

"I was sitting at my table and said, 'There's something wrong with my brother,'" said LaToya Smith.

It has been more than seven months since the worst day of LaToya Smith's life. May 20 was the day her 32-year-old baby brother, Verndell, was gunned down - a block from the dance studio he opened as a safe haven for kids on the South Side.

"I just could not close it," LaToya Smith said, "because it's like, this is what he worked so hard for. Every day, in and out, he's been in this studio."

Since May, LaToya Smith has been left trying to fill the enormous gap left by her brother's absence. With their family, his young son and the Ultimate Threat Dance Team.

"A song could come on, a move could come on, and they'll just cry - because he was a father to a lot of them," LaToya Smith said.

While LaToya Smith says her brother's presence is still very much felt, justice has so far been elusive.

"One thing the detective said, the first thing he said to me was, 'What I'm going to ask you for is something you're not going to want to give me - and that's patience,'" LaToya Smith said.

Smith credits the Chicago Police detectives working on her brother's case for keeping her up to date on their progress. But still, there are the unanswered questions; the hanging onto hope.

"I want the Chicago Police Department to find the killer, and I want them to be tried and I want them to be put in jail - because this is going to set an example to these kids that justice does work, that the police do work, that the police are on our side," she said.

For now, Smith is doing all she can to make sure Coach Vee's light still shines brightly.

Verndell Smith once said, "Find a space and opportunity, do your thing, and go crazy in this life."

LaToya Smith said the dance team recently had the opportunity to perform at a Bears game at Soldier Field – which is something that Coach Vee always wanted to do. So his legacy certainly lives on.

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