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Justice in Black and White 

In his debut book Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans, veteran reporter and editor Jed Horne paints a colorful picture of a dark tale.

The cold, hard facts derived from solid news reporting -- like the blind eyes of justice -- are necessary to achieve the ultimate aim: a clear portrait of truth. But such clear-cut contrasts don't always jibe with the nuanced complexities of real life, and Jed Horne acknowledges as much, writing in his debut book, "Real life is ambiguous in ways that cost it the clarity of art ... ."

Horne, the city editor at The Times-Picayune and a veteran writer for magazines and alternative newsweeklies, delivers this truism in the prologue to his debut book, Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a masterfully spun tale of crime and punishment that's as much a gripping page-turner as document of historical record. Horne's statement comes amidst his first face-to-face interview with Curtis Kyles, a future friend and a local African-American man tried five times for a gruesome killing in 1984 that riveted the city and has been credited by some for helping trigger white flight to New Orleans' suburban areas.

"Our legal system is impatient with ambiguity," Horne says recently over wine and cheese at his French Quarter home. "It's a legal system that forces things into black and white. Š It seemed pretty clear to me, and the Supreme Court, too, in issuing its reversal, that prosecutors in this case did not want to allow the jury to ponder the evidence in its full complexity and ambiguity. They did not want to allow for reasonable doubt."

Kyles spent 14 years on death row for the killing of Delores Dye, a 60-year-old white woman shot dead in the Schwegmann's parking lot on Gentilly Boulevard. After two trials within three months of the murder, Kyles was sent to Angola State Penitentiary to die before ultimately becoming a cause celebre for anti-death penalty advocates and those eager to reveal the racism inherit to the American legal system. After three more trials and what Kyles' defense attorneys describe as a politically motivated crusade by former New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., Kyles was set free.

"Race had everything to do with it," Denise LeBouef, one of Kyles' attorneys, says.

"Race infuses the case in every way," Horne says. "Just like it infuses life in New Orleans today; not always malignantly, but always there."

It's hard to argue against such points when considering details revealed in the book like revelations in court of statements by John Dillman, a New Orleans Police Department detective and Kyles' arresting officer. Dillman, in coercing Darlene Cahill, his romantic interest and future witness, to testify, pleaded, "Come on, Darlene. Help me get another nigger off the street."

Such riveting details in Kyles' saga fill the pages of Horne's book, one that began with his assignment at The Times-Picayune to examine the men and families caught up in the rash of homicides threatening the city in the mid-1990s. It resulted in hundreds of hours of interviews with dozens of people connected to Kyles and his case. Horne and Kyles eventually forged a friendship, reaching a point familiar enough for Horne to host Kyles and his family at his weekend home in rural Mississippi.

"We're pretty good friends now," Horne says. "Curtis is a remarkably canny guy, very articulate. He's somewhat traumatized by what's been through, and he's having some difficulty getting traction back in civilian life. He's an interesting person.

"I was very interested in understanding a guy like Curtis Kyles," Horne says. "Whether he was a killer or not, he was certainly from the criminal class. I was intrigued to get into somebody like that's head."

The understanding is described to readers of Desire Street with passages about Kyles' troubled youth, when he stole cars for an adrenaline high and sought out father figures with guns. "Curtis was able to explain himself fully to a middle-class white like myself," Horne says. "He was an excellent teacher. His life is rich in detail."

Typical of good reporting, Horne's writing lays the facts bare and allows the reader to determine guilt or innocence in this case. The main pursuit in Desire Street is the story itself, in the vain of crime books such as In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's story of a killing in Kansas that today still stands as the genre's standard-bearer. However, more parallels might be drawn to John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, because of the crime's Southern gothic elements. "New Orleans is a character that stands above anybody else in shaping this story," Horne says.

Such character development is one of many joys Horne found in his first book, a departure from his typical writing and editing. "It was a great discovery for me to learn how accommodating a book length is," he says. "It's tremendously freeing to be given space to fully explore my thoughts and follow ideas through to their end. I enjoyed it; it was great fun." That element of fun, however, doesn't erase the bitter lessons Desire Street offers. They are lessons that still scar Horne's friend and his city. "Let's face it: What happened to Curtis Kyles would not have happened to a white," Horne says. "And it leaves you wondering: In cases like this, the ones that stink to high heaven, do they get the right guy, or do they just grab the first available young black kid?"

click to enlarge "Race infuses the case in every way," Desire Street author Jed Horne says of the murder trials of Curtis Kyles. "Just like it infuses life in New Orleans today; not always malignantly, but always there."
  • "Race infuses the case in every way," Desire Street author Jed Horne says of the murder trials of Curtis Kyles. "Just like it infuses life in New Orleans today; not always malignantly, but always there."
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