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.

Katrina at four


In New Orleans, a bohemian renaissance

RICHARD OLIVIERFour years after Katrina, tourism is still up and down in New Orleans, but there have been many changes that have created opportunity and optimism. RICHARD OLIVIERFour years after Katrina, tourism is still up and down in New Orleans, but there have been many changes that have created opportunity and optimism. (Richard Olivier)
By Jed Horne

The Boston Globe asked for a Katrina anniversary piece. Here’s what I came up with.

HANNAH ADAMS, a Bostonian, was in the drama department at Vassar when Katrina struck. Today, four years later, she plies her theater skills as a community organizer in New Orleans. She works as a sometime “tester’’ for the Fair Housing Action Coalition, which sends a white and a black would-be “tenant’’ in search of apartments, to see if landlords discriminate against the black applicant.

An MIT grad then working in community development in Brooklyn, Jeff Hebert had resigned himself to an exile’s life. He figured the New Orleans economy would never indulge his dream of building in his native Louisiana. Katrina changed all that, and today he’s a homeowner working for a New Orleans planning and architecture firm. His focus: transforming dozens of city schools into centers of community, with health clinics, branch libraries, meeting rooms, and recreation facilities – a challenge as much political as architectural.

Then there’s Amy Wolfe, who wears her allegiances on her sleeve – or just below it: a tattoo around her wrist that depicts a map of the Mississippi River with a big star and street grid identifying Algiers. That’s the part of New Orleans where, as a young Katrina volunteer down from New York, she discovered the work in an emergency clinic that has turned health care into a career for her and New Orleans into her home.

Adams, Hebert, and Wolfe are three in a small army of generally well-educated outsiders who have flocked to New Orleans since Katrina – to start a school, scatter foundation grants, save the world, write a blog or a screenplay, become a rock god, or just generally kick back in one of the few cities in America where, even after a post-Katrina rent spike, it’s still possible to live the bohemian life without a trust fund or help from home.

New Orleans? A magnet for the hip, the young, and the restless? Prior to Katrina the place was better known for its subtropical sulk. New Orleans as poster child for entropy and decline gave way after Katrina to a grimmer summation: The city was dead, or about to be – a victim of rising seas, rising crime, and political thievery.

Four years later disaster has turned out to be – at least for some – a tremendous opportunity. Tourism is off, courtesy of the recession, but the economy appears to have been buffered against a Vegas-style swoon by the bucketloads of Katrina recovery dollars.

Incredibly, there are more restaurants than before Katrina. Bars wail long into the night; coffee shops are atwitter with bug-eyed, hyper-caffeinated visionaries plotting recovery – whether their own or New Orleans’s hardly makes a difference.

Bohemia on the Bayou is only one of many post-Katrina wrinkles. The working-class analogue is an equally welcome infusion of Latinos. They arrived as storm chasers, gutted sodden houses, fixed roofs, wired money to families back home in Morelia and Tegucigalpa and finally said to hell with Western Union and brought the whole gang up North, high rents be damned.

Many of the Latinos appear to be here to stay. The bayou bohos . . . maybe not so much. With privilege comes mobility, but given greater means and conspicuous consumer tastes, they have had the more immediate impact on the arts scene, on retail, on housing, nightlife and, perhaps, politics.

It makes many of them nervous, the easy accusation that they’re opportunists, gentrifiers, here today and perhaps gone tomorrow – middle-class “cultural imperialists’’ of all races in a city whose soul is black and poor. But not many people serious about New Orleans’s urgent needs are singing the blues. There’s no denying the newcomers’ role in energizing the recovery.

Salvaging hope from ruin and despair was the dream dared by many who stuck around after Hurricane Katrina. The slate had been erased. Folks began doodling visions of a city transformed.

Some of it has happened. The school system, which flatlined well before Katrina, has been jolted back to life by a shake-up as radical as any in big-city American education. Indeed, salient among the newcomers are young teachers and principals – sometimes startlingly young – funneled here through programs like Teach for America. Early metrics suggest that the experiment, with a heavy reliance on charter schools, is working. Reading and math scores are shooting up. And this in a city where even valedictorians at some high schools were, before Katrina, sub-literate.

Other recovery efforts remain works in progress. The city has an improved flood defense, but as yet nowhere near what it would need to withstand even another sideswipe like Katrina. Most of New Orleans’s vast and deeply blighted public housing projects have been knocked down. The question is whether the temporarily ousted tenants will find their way back into the “mixed income’’ communities that will replace the old government-run ghettos.

And of course some stuff hasn’t happened at all: Katrina destroyed the centerpiece of the city’s public health establishment (Charity Hospital) and also the VA hospital alongside it. Planners and politicians thrilled to the notion of a tandem replacement. Instead, the hospital project is stalled – a demonstration of the feckless political leadership that has sapped post-Katrina Louisiana. The city and FEMA continue to fight over proper reimbursement rates. Neither a lame-duck mayor, Ray Nagin, nor a duckling governor, Bobby Jindal, has been able to close the deal. A federal mediator may be asked to intervene.

Make that a double latte with a shot of chocolate, please.

If it’s not quite San Francisco in the ’60s, it’s Prague just after the Soviet collapse – with that sense among artists, entrepreneurs, and would-be Vaclav Havels that widespread destruction has created an opportunity for carte-blanche reinvention of the city itself.

Not all the denizens of our Bayou Bohemia are upstarts. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have sponsored cutting-edge architecture in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and are still in and out of the French Quarter mansion they bought after Katrina. David Simon, the genius behind the ground-breaking series “The Wire,’’ came down and shot a pilot last spring on life among musicians struggling to put post-Katrina lives back together. HBO has green-lighted the project, infusing New Orleans with a army of actors and writers and set-dressers and camera crews.

One reliable demographer puts the city’s population at 90 percent what it was before Katrina. That number feels a little high. There are still too many parts of town where empty lots or derelict buildings outnumber those up and running. But without a doubt, a tipping point has been reached.

Perhaps it’s the very sense of risk, of life on the edge of oblivion, that gives Bohemia on the Bayou its moody allure. And storm surge and howling wind is not the only threat. The murder rate is sky high, as street level drug dealers struggle over turf. Now and then the killing spills over, a sharp reminder that the violence of a famously passionate city is not always confined to society’s margins.

As we mark Katrina’s fourth anniversary today, life in New Orleans is more than ever like ice-skating on a soap bubble. All due condolences to Maine for what happened with Bill, but so far the hurricane season – fortunately – has been mild. A rough storm so fast on Katrina’s heels, and even the dreamers might break camp. If so, they’ll leave with a memory. For at least a few years in the aftermath of catastrophe, New Orleans was the place to be. They helped make it that way.

La Revolucion at 50

I hadn’t been to Cuba in 15 years and this time I went legit: U.S. Treasury “license”, an official visa — all that good stuff. There’s no slipping in on a tourist visa and a flight from Santo Domingo when you’re traveling with brass.

As the Gulfstream jet took off from Miami for the 55-minute flight to Havana, retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore told me he had two numbers on his mind: 1,800 and 40.

The first — 1,800 — is roughly the U.S. death toll from one storm, Katrina, where the cigar-chomping Honore gained fame after striding into New Orleans on behalf of the U.S. Army to rescue trapped storm victims and restore order.

The second — 40 — is the approximate number of storm deaths over the past eight years on an island that is hit by almost every hurricane that enters the gulf.

The three-day visit to Cuba in late July — on the eve of la Revolucion’s 50th anniversary — cast Honore as leader of another eight Americans with expertise in disaster response. They were shepherded by Wayne Smith, the chief of the U.S. Interests Section during the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s. To Smith, now head of the Center for International Policy, a Washington D.C. non-profit, shared exposure to hurricanes is a promising basis to build cooperation among Cuba, Florida and the Gulf South.

He saw Honore as a way to command the Cubans’ attention — which he got.

“I invited General Honore to head this delegation because of his impressive conduct as Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina just after the hurricane hit New Orleans. As our purpose was to compare notes with the Cubans on disaster management, who better than General Honore to lead the group. And of course he is an imposing figure who tells it like it is. The Cubans were obviously impressed.”

At every encounter Smith extended an invitation. He wanted a Cuban delegation to come to New Orleans for a follow-up meeting in November. But whether U.S. officials or their island counterparts would permit the exchange remained an open question.

A famously blunt man — Honore called media “stuck on stupid” for pestering him with blame-game questions during Katrina — the now retired army general adopted a more courtly tone among the Cubans. During meetings with Dagoberto Rodríguez, Cuba’s vice minister for foreign affairs, meteorologist José Rubiera, who goes on air 24/7 as hurricanes bear down on the island, Civil Defense leaders, the mayor of Havana and others, he took notes, asked questions and expresed admiration for the comprehensiveness of their storm-prep protocols.

His hosts responded ceremoniously for the most part, but did not miss the opportunity to lay a few grievances on the general. Rodriguez spoke with particular dismay about the embargo, Guantanamo and, among other concerns, the anti-Castro broadcasts from Miami by Radio Marti. The issue seemed extraneous to the purposes of his trip and Honore had no comment beyond platitudes about the value in seeking “common ground.”

But now and again Honore voiced disgust over repercussions of the decades-old impasse in Cuban-American relations. When officials at the Enriquez Cabrera Hospital told him that the embargo cost them spare parts needed to operate diagnostic gear, including ultra-sound and MRI machines, Honore brought the issue up over lunch with Jonathan Farrar, the chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section. Farrar had launched into a dull and detailed explanation of the complexities of Treasury regulations when Honore cut him short:

“You’ve got to knock that wall down, Mr. Ambassador,” Honore said. “Knock it down!”

He had equally little patience, however, with Cuba’s much vaunted — and quickly rebuffed — offer of medical supplies and the services of 1,500 doctors to assist in the Katrina recovery.

“I didn’t need ’em,” Honore said, dismissing the notion that Washington’s embarrassment had cost Louisiana significant assistance. “I had all the $2,000-a-day doctors I could possibly want.”

Honore’s irony overlies a heartfelt conviction: that however enormous America’s arsenal of disaster response tools, the whole approach is poorly organized, “over-lawyered” and overly expensive.

In an economy like Cuba’s, the regime can simply order civilian compliance with storm safety rules that include evacuation assistance not just for vulnerable people, but for their pets and even their domestic appliances. The refrigerator and TV set are boxed and hauled off to high ground along with grandparents, infants, the disabled and pregnant women.

Those who fail to heed the decrees of the neighborhood block associations can be fined — or worse.

“Some of it just won’t mesh with our culture,” Honore said. “By God, I’m American and I’ve got my gun,” he said, mimicking a die-hard. “No one’s telling me I’m leaving.”

Cuba is also prepared to order the abandonment of whole communities that prove flood-prone as it did in forbidding redevelopment of Playa del Cajillo after Hurricane Charlie erased that south coast fishing village in 2004.

As New Orleans’ helter-skelter resettlement demonstrates, that kind of government intervention doesn’t fly stateside, Honore said.

But Honore insisted that Cuba’s low-tech, grassroots approach to preparedness frees up resources for recovery, providing a model the U.S. should study closely.

It particularly offends him that U.S. emergency responders collect so much in overtime pay. “I worked 20 hours a day for three weeks and I didn’t get an extra dollar,” said Honore who has a book out called “Survival” about ways to develop what he calls a “culture of preparedness.” One precept would be to forbid overtime for the first 10 days of a disaster.

Another is to require that gas stations get back-up generators so that evacuation doesn’t grind to a halt after the electricity grid goes down.

Honore expressed envy over Cuban reports that some 7,500 back-up generators have been distributed across the island. They may be needed even before the first storms strike.

As Honore met with Civil Defense brass on a bluff just east of Habana Vieja, lights flickered and winked out three times in a half-hour, to the embarrassment of the uniformed men and women touting Cuban readiness.

The outages — coupled with a 65 percent leap in the island’s trade deficit — have led to whispers on the street that Cuba is sinking into another “special period” comparable to the disastrous economy of the early 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Honore puts American policy, including the embargo, in that same time warp, a self-defeating vestige of the Cold War that has forced oil-starved Havana into the embrace of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez while yielding an advantage to non-U.S. investors and corporations.

He sees Guantanamo as a relic — “a bargaining chip. Trade it for telecom rights.”

Is the impasse “stuck on stupid?”

Honore chose more diplomatic language.

“Cubans are ready to move forward,” he said after packing his bags and checking out of La Nacional. “Americans are ready to move forward — most of them. What’s holding us back on both sides are the people looking in the rear-view mirror.”