Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Dixon Trial Under Way

Will former state lawmaker take any lessons from Harold Ford's trial?

Posted By on Wed, May 31, 2006 at 4:00 AM

When former state senator Roscoe Dixon goes on trial this week, he may draw some lessons from the most famous political-corruption trial in recent Memphis history.

Charged with bribery, Dixon is the first of the Memphis defendants to stand trial in Operation Tennessee Waltz. Jury selection began Tuesday in federal court, with opening statements expected on Wednesday. Dixon's fate could influence the thinking of other defendants, including Michael Hooks, Kathryn Bowers, Calvin Williams, and John Ford.

The trial is the most closely watched political corruption trial in Memphis since 1993, when former congressman Harold Ford Sr., the brother of John Ford, was found not guilty on federal bank-fraud charges. It was the culmination of a 10-year investigation by federal prosecutors of Ford and the banking empire of brothers Jake and C.H. Butcher Jr. of Knoxville. Ford was actually tried twice, but the first trial in 1990 ended in a mistrial because of juror misconduct.

Although the cases are different, Dixon and his attorneys face some of the same circumstances that confronted Ford 13 years ago: extensive pretrial publicity and media coverage, racial overtones, an experienced team of prosecutors led by assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza (who was not involved in the Ford trial although he was on the staff at the time), and the decision about whether or not to let Dixon take the stand.

No one made better news copy than Harold Ford when he was under attack. After he was indicted, he accused U.S. attorney Hickman Ewing, then head of the office for Western Tennessee, of leading a political vendetta. The two men exchanged sharp words in a parking lot of the federal building, although they never squared off in the courtroom because Ewing assistant Dan Clancy tried the case.

Ford played to his constituents, insisting that having the trial in Knoxville instead of Memphis would eliminate prospective black jurors. When the trial was moved to Memphis, he kept up the pressure. The jury for the first trial included eight blacks and four whites. After testimony was completed and jurors had begun their deliberations, presiding judge Odell Horton declared a mistrial because juror contact with the defense team had made "a mockery" of justice.

Jurors for the second trial, three years later, were chosen from the Jackson, Tennessee, area, once again amid protests that Ford was not getting a fair shake. The sequestered jury included 11 whites and one black, which seemed to confirm Ford's fears. But the congressman and his Washington, D.C., attorneys played the hand they were dealt and won the case.

Ford was a textbook study in self-control. He wore the same conservative suit every day of the trial, chatted pleasantly with reporters, and showed little expression to the jury. And in a departure from his first trial, he took the stand to testify. In a dramatic confrontation with Clancy, he "took the blows" about his financial irresponsibility, while also painting a sympathetic picture of himself as a hard-working son, father, and businessman. The government, meanwhile, relied mainly on a succession of bank examiners and FBI auditors to make its case. After weeks of charts and financial details that strained the jury's attention span, Ford's testimony was the turning point.

Dixon, characterized as "a plodder" by his political associates, lacks Ford's charisma and compelling personal story, should he decide to testify. In two high-profile federal court trials in Memphis last year, defendants who declined to testify got mixed results. Football booster Logan Young was convicted, while former Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith went free when the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Dixon unsuccessfully tried to have his case dismissed on grounds that the FBI's bogus computer company E-Cycle Management targeted only black legislators. All of the Memphis defendants, and eight of the 10 Tennessee Waltz defendants to date, are black.

Dixon's biggest problem, of course, is the evidence against him, including tapes describing his assistance in getting a bill passed for E-Cycle and his share of $9,500 in payoffs. In the Ford trial, there were no tapes, and jurors said they were unclear about exactly what he did. "Taking the blows" could be fatal for Dixon.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Because It's There

In which the columnist reveals his inner politician.

Posted By on Wed, May 24, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Many friends, neighbors, and strangers have asked me recently why I'm running for the Memphis Charter Commission. Actually, that's a lie, but if you're getting into politics you have to start somewhere.

The truth is, like 32 other people, one reason I'm running for the charter commission is because it's there.

It's there, in case you weren't paying attention, because organizers obtained more than 10,485 signatures on petitions in 2004. Contrary to popular belief and some newspaper stories, there was no public referendum. The charter commission was created by petition signatures of 2.5 percent of the registered voters in Memphis -- the first and only time that has been done.

At any rate, the charterists said they gathered thousands more signatures than they needed. I don't doubt it. We live in a time of unprecedented ability to identify and organize communities of football fans, ping-pong players, or fed-up citizens thanks to the Internet. Gathering valid signatures still involves knocking on doors and standing on street corners because electronic signatures don't count, at least not yet. But spreading the word and building the base are easier than they were in 1966 or 1996.

We also live in a time of unprecedented apathy when it comes to voting in local elections. In 1991, 248,093 people voted in the Memphis election for mayor and City Council. In 2003, only 104,852 people voted in the city election.

The city charter doesn't say anything about petitioning for a charter review commission. The guidance comes from the Tennessee Constitution, which says a charter commission can be created by petition of at least 10 percent of those voting in the most recent general municipal election. In 2004, that meant 10,485 signatures.

By coincidence or design, charter commission organizers got cranking when the magic number was the lowest it had been in modern history. If petition organizers had had their way, charter commission members would have been chosen in December 2004 in conjunction with a District 7 Memphis school-board runoff election that drew a turnout of less than 5 percent.

The turnout, of course, might have been higher with charter commission candidates on the ballot. But the question was moot. The election commission reopened the qualifying process and bumped the election back nearly two years to August 3rd.

Meanwhile, another petition drive was brewing to recall Mayor Willie Herenton. The charter says a recall election requires petition signatures of at least 10 percent of the voters in the last mayoral election. (In a municipal election, some voters don't vote for mayor, so the numbers are slightly different.) But before the petition drive started, city attorney Sara Hall said the state constitution trumps the city charter as to recall requirements. The constitutional standard is 15 percent of the registered voters in the city, which translates to something like 64,000 signatures. For whatever reasons (the section was written in 1953), the constitution imposes a higher standard for removing someone from elected office than it does for a charter or amendment.

The August election figures to draw a big turnout because the ballot is jammed with candidates for Congress, governor, state legislature, county offices, and judgeships. Oddly enough, the trigger for the charter commission election is the Memphis City Council seat vacated by Janet Hooks, the lone city office on the ballot.

The election of charter commission members may still be confusing. For one thing, voters haven't done it before. Candidates run by district but are elected at large -- in other words, you can vote for seven of them. What the commission will do or even discuss -- term limits, pensions, the balance of powers, MLGW, whatever -- won't be known until the members are chosen. Any recommendations must pass legal muster and be approved by voters in a future election.

For a highly readable history of the charter and how it came to be, go to the library and get David M. Tucker's book, Memphis Since Crump: Bossism, Blacks, and Civic Reformers 1954-1968.

My name is John Branston and I approved this message and didn't even have to pay for it. And if you see me pounding in signs outside the election commission, please hit me with a hammer.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Death Row Treadmill

On the eve of his scheduled execution, differing views of Sedley Alley.

Posted By on Wed, May 17, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Ten years ago, when John Pierotti was nearing the end of his 30-year career as a prosecutor in the Shelby County district attorney general's office, I asked him which murder cases he remembered as the worst of the worst. One of the first names he mentioned was Sedley Alley.

Alley was then on Tennessee's death row for the brutal murder and rape of 19-year-old Marine Suzanne Marie Collins near Millington Naval Base in 1985. She was abducted while jogging, strangled, beaten, bitten, stabbed in the head with a screwdriver, and raped with a tree branch by her attacker.

As I write this, Alley is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 1 a.m. Wednesday at the Riverbend prison in Nashville. If carried out, the execution will be the second in Tennessee since 1960.

Pierotti, now in private practice, calls Alley "one of the most vicious people I've ever seen." Asked if he has any doubts about his guilt, he says, "Lord no, none at all." When Robert Hutton, his colleague at the Glankler Brown law firm, was representing Alley, Pierotti warned him to be careful about his own safety. "I told Robert he is capable of anything. Don't give him a ballpoint pen because he might attack you."

Hutton, who has known Alley for 10 years, says he never feared Alley or any of his clients. "I really like Sedley," he says.

Alley confessed to the crime and led police to the tree where the branch was broken and used to impale Collins. At his trial in 1987, his defense was not that he did not commit the crime but that he suffered from multiple personality disorder. In his appeal of his death sentence, Alley argued that his lawyers were ineffective and jurors would have spared his life if they had seen evidence of his brain damage, spina bifida, underdeveloped penis, distorted bladder, aberrant kidneys, and problems he experienced at birth. His conviction has been upheld five times since 1989 by the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Tennessee Supreme Court, and a judge specially appointed to review the evidence after the objectivity of the trial judge was questioned.

Federal public defender Kelley Henry represents Alley. She has been a death penalty attorney for 10 years, including the last six years in Tennessee. She believes Alley's confession was coerced. I asked her if she ever felt like she was being used by Alley or other prisoners on death row.

"I don't," she said. "It is my honor and privilege to do this job."

Henry said if DNA testing were done on Collins' clothing, the stick, and other items, the results would conclusively exculpate or incriminate Alley. Asked what she would do if the test results were incriminating, she said, "I can't even conceive of that. I don't have room for the possibility of that in my head. I am convinced that Mr. Alley is innocent."

DNA testing has helped clear prisoners wrongly convicted by juries, including some who confessed, but it is not a magic bullet when the evidence is a few weeks old, much less 21 years old. In North Carolina this week, a prosecutor used DNA evidence to get an indictment of a Duke lacrosse player charged with rape, while defense attorneys said DNA evidence clears the three indicted lacrosse players and proves that their accuser is lying. At a Tennessee parole board hearing Monday, Shelby County prosecutor Bobby Carter, who prosecuted Alley in 1985, argued that DNA testing in this case would be irrelevant to his guilt or innocence.

Randy Tatel, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK), says DNA testing should be performed but admits that it would not close the case or silence TCASK.

"I don't know that that produces enough evidence to exonerate him or not," Tatel said. "We just want to see the testing done."

If DNA tests were to link Alley to the murder, Tatel said "we would still oppose his execution. We are opposed to the death penalty as a public policy tool."

A prayer service for Sedley Alley was scheduled for Tuesday evening at Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Memphis.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Looking Indispensable

You can hire publicists to do it, or you can get the daily newspaper to do it for you.

Posted By on Wed, May 10, 2006 at 4:00 AM

One week after publishing its excellent series of reports on voter registration, The Commercial Appeal followed up with a package in Sunday's newspaper on Agricenter International that was, let's just say, not as good.

The two stories, which took up the entire front page of the business section, are only worth noting because of the timing. It's budget-setting season, when city and county elected officials sharpen their knives and government agencies run for cover or hire publicists and consultants to make them look indispensable. Or, if you're Agricenter, you get the daily newspaper to do that for you.

Agricenter International controls 1,000 acres of the 4,000-acre Shelby Farms and leases land to a variety of commercial ventures, including a trailer park, cell tower, and Ducks Unlimited. As the CA stories said, it also provides inner-city children a chance to experience life on a working farm, or something like that. And it has an economic impact -- whatever that is -- of more than $500 million a year! A veritable FedEx in a farm.

What the story didn't say was that the study was paid for by Agricenter International. The CA was apparently so overwhelmed by the big number that it could only note that the sum includes $250,000 spent at East Memphis hotels -- leaving $500 million plus change in the "other" category.

It is neither fair nor reasonable to take Shelby Farms and Agricenter International off the table during budget discussions while putting the heat on smaller fry. Mayor Willie Herenton has said several times that he is looking to close schools, parks, and fire stations and sell "nonperforming assets" to balance the budget. He has called out "irresponsible" city employee union leaders. The unions are big enough to fight back, but there are not many neighborhood parks, schools, or fire stations that can mount a tear-jerking publicity campaign or pay for an economic impact study to save themselves.

Nor does it make any sense to focus so much attention and publicity on the Mid-South Fairgrounds, Libertyland, the carousel, and the Mid-South Fair and so little on Shelby Farms, which is several times larger and potentially more lucrative.

Over strong objections from Agricenter International president John Charles Wilson, the Flyer obtained the nonprofit organization's leases in 2004. Wilson yielded only after the county attorney and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton intervened, and then Wilson made sure we paid $148 in copying charges. Oddly enough, after seeing the leases, I was more convinced than ever that Agricenter International is on the right track. In a 4,000-acre park, it makes sense to lease some acreage. But the leases should be public and publicized -- and those are two different things. They should be competitively bid to get a market price. The proceeds should benefit the park and possibly provide a surplus for other projects.

As it stands now, Shelby County, through Agricenter International, leases land to Ducks Unlimited for $1 a year. Between this year and 2011, when the lease expires, the county will collect exactly five bucks for some of the choicest, best located land in Shelby County. Other tenants include a trailer park, a cell tower ($12,000 a year), and Cingular Wireless ($21,000 a year).

It's one thing for newspapers and interest groups to look at public documents and come to their own conclusions. But to ignore the documents and substitute puffery is negligence. Not many people know it, but Shelby Farms is within the Memphis city limits. Its operating structure and ownership go back to an era before suburban sprawl, when it was a prison farm, and both the city of Memphis and Shelby County had different forms of government than they do now. The Agricenter was invented in 1979 as a "Versailles" of modern agriculture. The insiders who run it know perfectly well it was not envisioned as a place where kids could catch a fish or pick a tomato.

The mission has changed, which is understandable. But the public deserves to see the books and know the whole story. Gentleman farmers and duck hunters shouldn't be held to a standard different from schools, libraries, and fire stations at budget time.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The Week in Review

High schools rated, Crump Stadium's historic value, and plagiarism on trial.

Posted By on Wed, May 3, 2006 at 4:00 AM

For the first time in years, no Memphis or Shelby County school can claim bragging rights for being on Newsweek's list of America's 1,000 best high schools.

Tennessee has eight schools on the list, including two Nashville schools in the top 50 (Martin Luther King and Hume Fogg). Little Rock also has two schools in the top 50 (Central and Mills University Studies). Neither of the Nashville schools that cracked the top 50 was in the top 1,000 in the previous survey. Meanwhile, White Station High School in Memphis came off the honor roll after making it in two previous years. So did the schools change that much since the 2004 survey? Maybe. Maybe not.

"I rank to get attention," survey designer Jay Mathews says in the FAQ. Newsweek's list, first published in 1998 and four times since then, includes only public high schools. Mathews, the Washington Post's education reporter, says too many private schools won't provide data. The list also excludes "public elites" whose students have an average ACT score of 27 or above or an average SAT of 1,300 or above.

The article says the top 1,000 includes "schools that do the best job of preparing average students for college." Several schools on the list have a significant percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, including Science and Engineering Magnet School in Dallas, which ranked eighth and has 48 percent of its students on subsidized lunch. The survey puts a lot of weight on Advanced Placement courses and tests and how many students take them. Mathews says that sending a student to college without taking AP or similar courses is "dumb" and "a form of educational malpractice."

Other Tennessee high schools on the list include Fairview, Franklin, Brentwood, Oak Ridge, Hillsboro, and Centennial (Franklin).

Bottom line: School ratings by Newsweek and U.S. News matter because they matter. Our superintendents should make sure they don't get blanked next time.

• The Memphis Board of Education this week approved funding for a new sports complex at Central High School to replace Crump Stadium. But the 72-year-old concrete monolith whose heyday was more than 40 years ago may not be demolished anytime soon.

A historic preservation issue must be dealt with first, said Joe Garrison, review and compliance coordinator for the Tennessee Historical Commission (THC) in Nashville.

Crump Stadium is on the National Register of Historic Places. Unless additional engineering studies determine that it is structurally unsound and cannot be shored up, then it stays on the register. "If it's eligible, then it's hard to justify use of federal funds to demolish it," Garrison said. THC is working with the Memphis Landmarks Commission. Landmarks manager Nancy Jane Baker could not be reached for comment.

The city of Memphis Office of Housing and Community Development, the school board, and Central High School officials support the demolition and new sportsplex, which is part of a $21 million renovation of Central High. Superintendent Carol Johnson told the school board that delaying capital projects makes them more expensive.

Garrison, however, said Memphis must show two things: a need for a sportsplex and a compelling reason for putting it at the Crump Stadium site and not somewhere else. "Memphis has a lot of open spaces," he said.

Garrison is optimistic that "we're going to get through this" in amicable fashion. But a confrontation may be inevitable. The issue is not whether Crump Stadium is stable but whether it is useful and worth keeping. Most Memphis decision-makers have said no.

• The plagiarism police at The New York Times are out for blood. A Harvard student's chick-lit book is the latest offender. In a story, "Second Ripple in Plagiarism Scandal," the following similarities to another book are noted: A "full-fledged debate over animal rights" is "a full-scale argument about animal rights." A character in one book says, "The mink like being made into coats." In the other book, "The foxes want to be made into scarves." A heartthrob in both books has "eyes so dark they're almost black."

That's not plagiarism; it's imitation and trite writing. There isn't a print journalist in America who could survive such scrutiny.

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