If Kyles Killed …

With the recent arrest of Curtis Kyles for murder, I find myself propelled into distinguished company. Like Norman Mailer and William Buckley, I stand accused of having abetted criminality ascribed to a released Death Row inmate.

Mailer’s problem was Jack Henry Abbott, a brilliant writer who murdered a young man shortly after Mailer helped secure his release. Buckley beat the drum for New Jersey teen killer Edgar Smith, who also got in trouble after he was sprung.

My book “Desire Street” chronicled the case of a low-level fence and drug dealer whose conviction and death penalty in connection with a 1984 murder were reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, based on prosecutorial misconduct by the New Orleans district attorney. Fortunately or unfortunately, a writer less talented than either Buckley or Mailer also lacks the wide influence they enjoyed in their lifetimes. My book did not free Kyles. It appeared several years after New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick despaired of nailing him and, after a record five trials over 14 years for the same crime, threw in the towel.

Nonetheless, the old in-box has been filling up with emails of varying description and levels of vitriol. Here’s one exchange with a woman who will remain anonymous. Below that I have posted a lengthier essay I wrote for my old paper,  The Times-Picayune on Sunday, June 20.

For more on Desire Street, try: http://www.amazon.com/Desire-Street-Story-Deliverance-Orleans/dp/B000HOMU3O/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1276964879&sr=1-2

EXCHANGE WITH E-MAILER:

OPENING SHOT:

What do you think of your book subject Curtis Kyles now? I understand he’s a suspect in the slaying of Crystal St. Pierre, whose body was found in a wooded area in Jefferson Parish on June 11. You were such a champion for him, thinking he was wrongly convicted of murdering Delores Dye. Are you sorry you wrote the book?

MY REPLY:
You need to take another look at the book. I think you’ll find that I was less a champion of Kyles, whom I described as an “urban predator” demonstrably capable of violence, than a critic of prosecutors who blew the case by resorting to illegal tactics. (Indeed, I was criticized by many readers for not turning Kyles into a saint.) Am I sorry I wrote the book? No. It appeared years after the case was abandoned by Harry Connick, but it helped bring to light a pattern of illegal prosecutions that, with new personnel in the DA’s office, we have reason to hope has been corrected. A botched prosecution, assisted by police in cahoots with an equally suspect informant, is the reason why Kyles went free. The informant, as you will recall, also went free of the Leidenheimer murder, which wasn’t prosecuted at all. If Kyles killed Mrs. Dye, more’s the pity he wasn’t prosecuted competently at the time. If he killed Angel St. Pierre, let’s hope they’ve learned how to get it right.

TIMES-PICAYUNE OP-ED PIECE:

DID A KILLER GO FREE?

BY JED HORNE

The arrest of Curtis Kyles, in connection with the murder of a young woman earlier this month, has inspired I-told-you-so reactions from two very different camps. On the one hand are people convinced that Kyles was a murderer all along. Others argue that he may have been turned into one by the twisting experience of his many years on Death Row and the lack of rehabilitative services once he was released.

Kyles famously was tried five times for the 1984 murder of Delores Dye, as she wheeled a shopping cart across a sun-drenched Schwegmann’s parking lot. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction and death sentence after determining that New Orleans cops and prosecutors withheld evidence. The evidence strongly implicated an associate of Kyles, a police informant who was both a drug addict and a confessed (but never prosecuted) murderer.

Unlike a lot of high-profile exonerations, the Kyles case lacked DNA evidence that could definitively prove what’s called “actual innocence.” Instead, the case pivoted on the core principle of “reasonable doubt” and the unreasonable — and patently illegal — lengths prosecutors had gone to to deny juries information that might feed that doubt. “Desire Street,” my book about the case, irked some readers by dwelling on Kyles’ criminality and refusing to portray him as choirboy. The prosecutorial misconduct was undeniable; the Supreme Court cited chapter and verse. But I allowed that, in trying to frame Kyles, prosecutors might have been targeting exactly the right guy.

Of course that persistent ambiguity does not make Kyles guilty of the Dye murder any more than the recent arrest  establishes his guilt in the murder of Crystal St. Pierre.

What was certain about the Dye murder is that incompetent and illegal tactics by prosecutors not only blew the case, they cost Mrs. Dye’s survivors a chance at emotional closure — another important deliverable when jurisprudence is properly administered.

Equally certain is that Kyles was put back on the street with breathtakingly little thought given to the possibility that he was, if not a danger to society, very likely a danger to himself. If Kyles is found guilty of the recent murder we will have no choice but to conclude he was both kinds of danger rolled into one.

Louisiana has pushed aside South Africa to claim the planet’s highest rate of incarceration. This approach is not only wildly expensive, it clearly doesn’t work. We can do the math: Along with the sky-high incarcerations, New Orleans has the nation’s highest murder rate.

We’ve gotten real good at putting young men in prison. And prison has gotten real good at turning them into hardened criminals or outright psychopaths. Clearly we need to get just as good at engineering a productive return to society after sentences are served — or vacated. That means pre-release rehabilitation and it means much more thorough follow-up.

California is only the first state to have driven itself into the poor house by essentially giving the prison industry unrestricted access to state revenues. Eventually, Louisiana is going to have to wise up and learn that same lesson. Investments in programs that give the formerly incarcerated a shot at a productive return to society are not a question of coddling criminals. They are a way to protect ourselves from them. And they are a helluva lot cheaper than jailing every two-bit dope dealer in the mistaken notion that we have “gotten tough on crime.” That approach is morally reprehensible. More to the point, at a time of fiscal crisis and bloated deficits, it is financially unsustainable.

The good news is that post-incarceration services are taking root here. Non-government programs for the most part, they assist with housing, job training and the psychological counseling that can steer ex-prisoners away from the heady enticements of the criminal underworld. One of the best of these programs, Resurrection after Exoneration, is run by a man with a very clear sense of the reality on both sides of Angola’s gate. John Thompson served 18 years on death row for a conviction eventually overturned by revelations that included long-suppressed blood evidence.

Cases are rarely that clear-cut, which is why in “Desire Street” I chose to focus on the more amorphous matter of reasonable doubt. But the virtues of rehabilitation for former prisoners, Thompson’s mission today, are unambiguous. We would be wise to learn from him, and also from Curtis Kyles.

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