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The Case of the Canal Street Madam 

"The city and county fathers had never been of a mind to banish the boom's illegal elements; only to control them. For 'everyone,' as was generally known, liked to drink, just as 'everyone' liked to gamble and whore around a little. And as long as a man hurt no one but himself, what difference did it make?" -- Jim Thompson, The Transgressors (1961)

Outside the federal courthouse lounge the photographers, still and television. A hard-to-impress group, laughing while they wait. "Did you see that guy calling himself bishop? Man, that dude used to be a Satanist! Now he's a spiritual advisor!"

Somebody points out a couple of cameramen as being "from 48 Hours." Somebody else pinpoints the courtroom: Section B, Judge Ivan Lemelle presiding, Room C501.

That courtroom is high-ceilinged, streaked by lights. Along the walls are paintings of jurists, almost all of whom are holding open books. Clerics in the Religion of the Book. Almost unnoticed on one wall is a gold-circled clock, discreetly fading into the woodwork.

On one side of the room, there's a large semi-circle of chairs done in pleated white leather. There are 16 empty ones and on the one in the middle sits Judge Lemelle, a shock of high black hair and a mustache. The sleeves of his robe are pushed back, no cuffs. On the other side of the room, three rows are filled up and plenty of seats are taken by people you'd probably recognize from television news. "Oyez! Oyez!" cries the court crier. "God save the United States and this court!" The business of "the People."

This court is here to finish off the matter of Jeanette Maier, the "Canal Street Madam." She and her 64-year-old mother, Tommie Lee Taylor, are here to be the last people sentenced in the case. How many of the People's dollars have gone into this matter? Likely no one will ever know. No one has been sent to jail.

The judge talks to the prosecutors, Bill McSherry and Al Winters, of departures, categories, levels, guidelines and recommendations. Then he summons the defendants. Their attorney carries a name that could have been lifted from a Jimmy Breslin story: Vinny Mosca.

Mother-and-daughter defendants stand on either side of Mosca. They will stand the whole time.

Tommie Lee Taylor goes first. The judge asks about her income; she says she gets $500 a month in Social Security and food stamps; her daughter earns nothing. Taylor takes her medication "when needed."

"I'm embarrassed," Taylor tells the judge. "I'll assure you you'll never see me in your court again."

Citing her spotless record, Lemelle gives Taylor two years' probation and waives her $200 fine.

Then, it is Jeanette Maier's turn. She is wearing a black pant suit with white-and-black waistband and cuffs. She looks like an adoption lawyer or a travel agent, well turned out.

It starts off good for the defendant. Lemelle says he likes how she has cooperated with the prosecution. "You broke the dam," he says. But then he mentions her "poor parenting skills" and asks after her daughter Monica. "In my mind, what I was doing to support my children wasn't bad," she says, but the judge says Monica has claimed that her mother had turned her out -- put her "on the turf" in old slang -- when she was only 15.

"But, Your Honor," Jeanette Maier's protest catches a sob on the way out. "But that's not true."

Lemelle asks Jeanette if she talks to her daughter now.

"One day, she's OK. The next day, she's full of hate."

Talk turns to making a living. "I'm getting into writing; I think I'd be good at it." She tells of applying for a turn as a coffee shop supervisor, only on the follow-up interview, the hirer had a change of tolerances. "Her eyes held something back. I know. I've seen it before."

She tells of having to pass up several jobs as a nightclub hostess because she'd been turned down for an Alcoholic Beverage License card in Jefferson Parish. "Well, I'm no career counselor," the judge declares. "But maybe you ought to get out of the entertainment business."

It is time for final statements. In a voice both husky and quivering, the retiring madam thanks her social workers and apologizes to her community. Vinny Mosca leans to the mic. "I had a fellow lawyer ask me why I bother, they're only a bunch of prostitutes. I said, 'No, they're human beings.'"

Then it is the judge's big moment. He speaks slowly, seeming to choose his words with care. He mentions that these charges should have been brought in local courts, but were not. He also mentions that no charges have been brought against those johns "who have kept this business active."

The sentence comes out like this: Jeanette Maier will report on May 19 to a VOA halfway house for a six-month sentence and pay a $10,000 fine, interest waived. In 49 minutes, the People of the United States are finished with Jeanette Maier. Or at least those people who matter in these matters. ...

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