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2003 in Review 

Looking back at the people, stories, celebrations and skirmishes we covered in the past 12 months

HIV Clinic Fears Cuts

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, most patients were gay white males. That's changed. By last year, one-third of the New Orleanians newly diagnosed with HIV were black women. Today there are 1,300 local HIV-positive women, although they are -- by and large -- a silent group ("Changing Faces of AIDS," July 29). Most women stay quiet because of multiple worries: their families will fear infection from them, their children may be teased and mistreated, and their friends will think less of them because their partners were sneaking around on the side.

Barbara Brown heads up the Family Advocacy, Care, and Education Services (FACES) program, which this summer marked its 15th year of providing HIV-AIDS social services to local women and youth. Brown says that the 800 women and kids the program serves may have a hard time finding health care if the legislature makes further cuts to the state's charity hospital system this spring.

Currently, the HIV Outpatient (HOP) clinic sees about 4,000 HIV-positive patients from the New Orleans region. The clinic was not cut during the recent charity-hospital closures, but Brown says that FACES already has been notified about upcoming cuts to the HOP clinic's programs and the group is bracing for more. "When the Legislature starts up in the spring, everyone is really concerned about what the outcome will be for HOP," she says.

Their Back Pages

Local book vendors Josh Wexler and Jordan Blanton, a couple that met during their days at New York University, sought to bring a bit of the Big Apple's "culture" and "pedestrian street life" to New Orleans with sidewalk sales of used books. After a long, strange legal skirmish with the City of New Orleans ("Me and You and a Dog Named Lenny Bruce," May 6), the two were given a firm resolution supporting their venture.

In December 2001, Wexler and Blanton sought a required Department of Finance permit to sell books on city streets. Because books were not included on an approved list of goods ranging from razor blades to peanuts, their request was ultimately denied. During the April hearing, City Attorney Ed Washington admitted "the city erred" in its handling of the couple's permit requests. In June, Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. handed down his final decision in the case -- supporting Wexler and Blanton's business -- ruling that the city ordinance in dispute "operates as an overriding ban on book-selling" and "[a]s a consequence of this finding, the First Amendment applies in this case because book selling is a form of expression. ... [Wexler and Blanton] will be denied First Amendment freedoms if the ordinance is enforced whereas [the City of New Orleans] does not appear to be at risk of suffering any harm."

Wexler and Blanton still set up their book table at the intersection of Esplanade Avenue and Decatur Street, but now only keep weekend hours. "We still get people coming by all the time saying, 'Congratulations on the case,'" Wexler says.

The "S-Word"

According to the state Governor's Program on Abstinence (GPA), public schools in 45 of Louisiana's 64 parishes offer what is called "abstinence-only" education, which promotes abstinence until marriage and forbids discussions of condoms, birth control and sex ("The S-Word," Nov. 11). In the 2003 race for governor, voters had the choice of two abstinence-only proponents -- Bobby Jindal and Kathleen Blanco.

It's not yet clear whether Blanco will restructure the GPA, which has existed in the governor's office since July 1997, when Gov. Mike Foster shifted it from the Office of Public Health and named former legislator Dan Richey as its director. In 2002, the national American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the program for using federal money to promote a religious agenda. Medical experts have also criticized the GPA Web site, especially its "ask the experts" section that, they say, is filled with misleading information.

Last week, Richey said that no one has ever complained to him. "Look, I've been doing this for six years," he said. "I haven't had a soul complain about any of the facts and figures associated with the Governor's Program on Abstinence. Just have them bring it to our attention and give me chapter and verse."

Moving Forward at Fisk

Just before Thanksgiving, some students from Fisk-Howard Elementary School came home, upset about an assembly called by their principal, Eve Brannan ("Fisk Fiasco?" Dec. 12). Students told their parents that Brannan had led third, fourth and fifth graders to repeat the words "stupid and low-class" in response to questions such as "What will people think if we are fighting?" and "What will people think if we don't pass the LEAP test?" Brannan says that she did ask those questions but maintains that she had simply told the kids how intelligent they were.

After Thanksgiving break, students say, Brannan began telling them that they were intelligent, every day, over the school's intercom system. The area superintendent, Julian Stafford, made visits to Fisk. And there was an assembly where -- parents had heard -- Brannan was going to apologize. Parent Eva Brown says her three children at Fisk told her, "Dr. Brannan had the assembly, but the word 'sorry' never came out of her mouth."

That leaves Brown feeling less than satisfied. "She should have verbally said she was sorry to the kids and to the teachers," she says. Brown also says that social workers must go room to room and check in with the kids who still feel upset. The spokeswoman for Orleans Parish Schools did not return phone calls for comment for this story.

New Homeowner

In October, when Gambit Weekly published its story about John Thompson, he had been free nearly six months, exonerated 18 years after he was wrongly convicted of murder ("Six Months Out," Nov. 4). With his release, Thompson became the 108th person to be exonerated from this nation's death rows since 1973. Earlier this month, he and his new wife, Laverne, became first-time homebuyers.

Last week, Thompson said that he and his wife Laverne hoped to spend the holiday in their freshly built Habitat for Humanity home. Habitat volunteers built the Thompsons' dwelling, with the couple working alongside -- pounding nails, placing shingles, shoveling dirt. The finished product fulfills one of Thompson's dreams. "I'm assuming that's every man's dream -- owning his own house," he says. The next dream is a little smaller -- a table that will fit six, to accommodate their children and grandchildren.

Making Waves

This summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made what The New York Times called "the most important changes to the nation's media ownership rules in a generation," when it voted to change media ownership rules such as raising a media outlet's potential national audience from 35 percent to 45 percent.

If the FCC vote was so groundbreaking, then why did it barely register a blip on the national media radar until the last minute? ("Broadcast Blues," June 10). Critics blame the issue's relatively spare national news coverage on a lack of diverse media voices, a specter they feared the FCC vote was abetting. Vocal opposition to the vote came from a strange mix of bedfellows including the National Rifle Association, the National Organization for Women, and politicians from both sides of the aisle.

Chief among the vote's supporters is Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, Republican chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Tauzin told the FCC was ordered to act by a federal judge who demanded that FCC regulations reflect the advent of cable, the Internet, and other channels of communication in American society.

Some critics acknowledged the FCC was legally compelled to act but denounced its perceived rush to vote without giving outsiders much time to review the proposed new rules. Both houses of Congress later voted to restore the 35 percent cap, but in December, as part of the omnibus federal spending package, the House amended it to a 39 percent compromise cap on TV network ownership. The Senate is scheduled to vote on that measure in January.

Meanwhile, musicians led by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine launched a 13-city national tour at the end of 2003 in protest of media consolidation. The "Tell Us The Truth," tour featured two national policy wonks who were showered with rock-star adulation: Michael J. Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, the Democratic FCC commissioners who had voted against the changes.

New Hope for Ryan Matthews

In April, attorneys for death-row inmate Ryan Matthews released DNA evidence linking another man to the 1997 killing of popular Bridge City grocer Tommy Vanhoose ("New Trials," May 13). Matthews was a juvenile when he was arrested; he's now 23 and has been on death row for six years. His co-defendant, Travis Hayes, received a life sentence.

As a result of the DNA evidence, Matthews' case received its first hearing in August. Attorney Billy Sothern had originally hoped that his client would be home to spend Christmas with his mother, Pauline Matthews, and his sister, Monique, who gave birth this spring to a daughter she named Ryen in his honor. Now they're hoping for his release "very soon," says Sothern.

Poop Decks

Cruise ship traffic from the Port of New Orleans has become one of the brightest spots on the city's economic horizon. Yet, the berth boom may come with a price. Nationwide, environmentalists are raising concerns about sewage and water treatment procedures followed by cruise lines; locally, few questions have been raised about the lines operating out of New Orleans ("Making a Stink," Nov. 18).

Dana Dubose of Oceana, a national environmental group, says that outdated regulations on wastewater and the general lack of oversight by the government mean that citizens have no way of knowing how close to shore sewage is being dumped. Dubose says the concerns raised include both threats to human health and the marine environment. Cruise industry representatives say that their corporate policies ensure that the sewage is adequately treated and is released far out from shore.

Environmentalists are hoping for legislation that will set a standard for wastewater treatment and also make regulations legally enforceable. Several states have already started on this path, with Alaska leading the pack and California and Maine not far behind. Should Louisiana lawmakers choose to take up this issue, they could enact a no-discharge zone in state waters or add their support to efforts in Washington, D.C., to establish national regulations. For the moment, however, state officials don't seem too concerned. "I assume the cruise lines are taking care of it," Barbara Roy of the Office of Tourism told .

Rebel Yell

Today, Louisiana singer C.J. Trahan is considered a forefather of "hate-core" music and a cult figure among white supremacists. This summer, Trahan gave his first in-depth interview about his days as artist Johnny Rebel, who in the late 1960s recorded segregationist cuts for Crowley-based Reb Rebel Records ("Johnny Rebel Speaks," June 10). His specialty: setting racist lyrics against swampbilly twangs.

Johnny Rebel's work and its messages have been mimicked for years, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). "Since the 1960s, when racist country singer Johnny Rebel recorded songs such as "N--Hatin' Me," more than 500 hate rock bands have formed worldwide," reports Bigots Who Rock: An ADL List of Hate Music Groups. A few years ago, after Trahan discovered that Johnny Rebel 45s sold for $60 on the Internet, he compiled all of his singles onto a CD. After 9/11, Trahan came out of retirement to record "Infidel Anthem," a song about how the United States should trounce Osama bin Laden. That tune landed him on Howard Stern's radio show, which led to an overwhelming demand for all of Johnny Rebel's music. New recordings include songs such as "Send Them All Back to Africa."

Our story on Johnny Rebel provoked much response -- with most readers questioning our decision to run the profile at all. "How ever did you arrive at this topic, anyway?" wrote Shawn Lamb Bowen. "Were you just looking for the most ignorant, self-contradictory, back-woods hick on the planet and arrived at C.J. Trahan? Did you have nothing better to do?" Writer Heather Wright, meanwhile, wondered if "it was assumed that your readers assign themselves to wearing sheets and burning crosses on people's lawns."

Legal Lynching?

The issue was whether Jefferson Parish prosecutors Cameron Mary and Donald Rowan should be barred from wearing neckties bearing images of a grim reaper and a hangman's noose. Last December, local death-penalty defense attorney Clive Stafford Smith filed a document titled "Motion to Prohibit Prosecutors From Wearing Tasteless and Improper Garb in the Courthouse" on behalf of his client, Lawrence Jacobs Jr., a young black man charged with first-degree murder.

Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick responded immediately, saying that he didn't know that the ties were being worn, that he considered them to be inappropriate, and that he had instructed Mary and Rowan not to wear the ties again to work. "End of story," he said.

Several months later, Stafford Smith's office, the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, released a report that once again raised the question of race in Jefferson Parish death-penalty cases. In the study's sample of more than 500 felony-level juries, 20 percent had no black jurors at all, even though 23 percent of the parish is black. Center attorney Richard Bourke alleged that the only conclusion to reach is that prosecutors were deliberately striking black prospective jurors. Connick called the charges "politically motivated," since the Center is opposed to the death penalty.

Where There's Smoke ...

This summer, state legislators debated a bill that would open New Orleans and other Louisiana cities up to the type of indoor smoking bans that have been enacted across the country ("Butt Out!" May 6). Senate Bill 901 was created to remove a state law that forbade local governments from enacting smoking bans that were stricter than those imposed by the state (which makes smoking illegal in hospitals, child-care centers and schools). Health advocates championed the bill and brandished research studies on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. Business leaders, most notably the Louisiana Restaurant Association, opposed it -- arguing that indoor smoking bans would be devastating to bars, eateries and other public places that now welcome smokers. House members amended the bill to placate those interests -- exempting bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, gaming facilities, tobacco shops and hotel rooms -- before Gov. Mike Foster signed it into law. In a separate new law, smoking in the Louisiana Superdome was completely outlawed indoor smoking.

From Silence to Spokesperson

About 17 years ago, Lyn Hill Hayward told her friend Walker Percy how a priest, a friend of her family, had accosted her when she was 14. Percy believed Hayward, which cemented their close friendship. In June of this year, just as she was helping to found Louisiana SNAP -- Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests -- Hill talked with about her long friendship with Percy, one of America's foremost Catholic writers ("No One Would Believe It," June 24).

Theirs was a close friendship, based on art and faith and side-by-side studios in the St. Tammany Art Association building. Percy wrote about Hayward in essays, modeled a fictional character after her, and sent her messages in his novels. Hayward painted his portrait for a book cover and -- for two more decades -- told no one else her secret. After all, she had grown up Catholic, in a Catholic family, inside Catholic schools, in the midst of a largely Catholic city.

Percy died in 1990. Over the past few years, as Hayward read report after report about priest abuse, she began to think about the root of her friendship with Percy. "Silence communicates an absence of disapproval," she said. It was time for her to speak up. And she did. By this past summer, local news organizations had established Hayward as a go-to person for comments about priest abuse.

Some of SNAP's chief complaints are that the church has understated the problem and protected priests at the expense of victims. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice is currently compiling data on priest abuse, using information from each of the nation's 195 Catholic dioceses. The survey will be officially released in February, but, according to Archdiocese of New Orleans spokesman Fr. William Maestri, the local data submitted for the report showed that only about 2 percent of local priests had been alleged as abusers and that the archdiocese had deemed only half of those complaints "credible." He declined to name any of those with credible claims made against them.

Hayward questions exactly what "credible" means, especially since her own complaint was judged not credible by the diocese. "Not only are there lots of victims," she says, "but (also) lots of perpetrators walking the streets today."

Stripped and Searched

In August, we reported that Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti was ramping up his campaign to become Louisiana Attorney General -- the chief legal officer for the state ("Following Foti," Aug. 5). At the same time, civil rights attorneys were accusing Foti of violating a 2002 federal consent decree by conducting illegal "strip searches" of thousands of men and women arrested for minor charges. Alleged victims include a woman employee of the NOPD and a law student who now clerks for a federal judge in another state, who provided chilling sworn testimony of "degrading" treatment at the hands of Foti deputies.

Foti attorney John Weeks acknowledged the violation of the federal consent decree in a subsequent court filing: "I am at a loss to understand how the practice could have continued for nearly a year," he said. U.S. Magistrate Alma Chasez scheduled a hearing Aug. 20 to determine if Foti should be held in contempt of court. By the end of 2003, both a lot -- and little -- had changed.

On Sept. 5, plaintiffs' attorney Mary Howell and Foti attorney Weeks filed a joint 18-point agreement in federal court aimed at resolving issues that came up in the August contempt hearing. Foti signed the agreement, which said in part that Foti would conduct training sessions for all of his top ranking officers on consent decrees, policies and procedures related to strip search cases "no later than Oct. 15, 2003 [which will] be completed by Oct. 31, 2003."

On Oct. 4, Foti, a Democrat, easily won the primary election over his only opponent, Republican state elections commissioner Suzanne Terrell.

On Nov. 13, plaintiff attorney Sam Dalton filed another motion in federal court asking Chasez to hold Foti in contempt again because training classes still had not begun. Both sides are scheduled to appear in federal court in March 2004. Foti, who takes office as attorney general on Jan. 12, has not yet named an interim successor. The election to replace him as sheriff will likely not be held until the fall.

click to enlarge John Thompson was exonerated 18 years after he - was wrongly convicted of murder. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • John Thompson was exonerated 18 years after he was wrongly convicted of murder.
click to enlarge In October, Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles - Foti easily won his bid to become the state's new - attorney general, despite concerns over illegal strip - searches by his deputies.
  • In October, Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti easily won his bid to become the state's new attorney general, despite concerns over illegal strip searches by his deputies.
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