What's New

The latest updates on some of the stories we reported on in 2002


Erica's Choice

A young college student named Erica became pregnant and called a local number that she thought was an abortion clinic. She instead reached Bill Graham, a pro-life activist who, she says, warned her away from the clinics and then pretended to arrange a private abortion for her, stringing her along until it was too late and she could no longer have the procedure.

We received dozens of letters and emails about Erica's story ("No Choice," Jan. 8). Some were outraged at Graham, some outraged at the practice of abortion. Several childless couples wanted to reach Erica, to adopt her baby. Last week, Gambit Weekly reached Erica at her parents' house in Texas. She had the baby in March, a healthy baby boy. Graham, from his perspective, calls that "a happy ending," since Erica had the baby, not an abortion. Erica, who is juggling a full load at school and two part-time jobs in addition to the baby, had been debating giving up her son for adoption, but she kept him. It hasn't been easy, she says by phone, picking up the baby, who is crying in the background. And, she says, while she has accepted her life the way it is, "it should have been my choice to make."

Why She Doesn't Leave

In June, we published a three-part series about domestic violence in New Orleans. Murders due to domestic violence occur here at a rate more than five times higher than the national average. As a result, services are overburdened at almost every level. One of the most obvious examples of this is with battered women's shelters, where New Orleans limps along with only the 28-bed Crescent House for the entire city.

Gambit Weekly followed the story of Octavia, a local seamstress and abuse victim who shot above her husband's head as he attempted to strangle her with a phone cord. Six months later, she is still dealing with the after-effects of her abuse. Her husband hasn't returned her best sewing machine, despite a civil-court order. She was told that her felony arrest made her ineligible for a job in the legal profession. And then, just after Thanksgiving, someone broke down Octavia's front door while she was gone. Police took fingerprints and matched them to her ex-husband's. A warrant is out for his arrest.

As of this fall, victims who fight back in self-defense have an advocate, the domestic-violence clinic at Tulane University Law School. Pam Metzger, who heads up the criminal defense section of the clinic, says that police response still needs improvement. "It's safe to say," she asserts, "that there's still a problem with police identifying the victim as the aggressor." Metzger says that she is impressed with judges in criminal court and how they are alert to signs of a self-defense case.

Not long after taking his job, new city attorney Charles Rice met with local domestic violence experts -- people like Joanne Schmidt, the city's deputy commissioner of criminal justice for the issue. "He took an interest," says Schmidt, "after talking with city judges, who said that the most serious thing they deal with is domestic violence." As a result, by mid-January, each section of municipal court will have a prosecuting attorney devoted strictly to domestic violence.

Municipal court deals with most domestic violence cases in this city, often seeing the cases before they escalate to the level of self-defense. Yet wrongful arrests are not addressed by more aggressive prosecution, Metzger explains. As a result, she has mixed feelings about the new attorneys. "It will be good when the correct defendant is the defendant and when the correct offender is the offender. But it might be more difficult when that's not the case," she says.

On the civil court side, victims who need legal help with stay-away orders, child custody and divorce can look to the civil section of the Tulane clinic, which recently received a U.S. Department of Justice grant worth more than $320,000. Victims have access not only to student attorneys but also interns from the Tulane School of Social Work. Tulane's multidisciplinary approach is a welcome addition to existing civil defenders such the New Orleans Legal Aid Corp. and the Pro Bono project. But because domestic-violence cases are so thorny and work-intensive, students were only able to handle about two dozen clients during fall semester.

Hughes, Connick and the T-P

New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes will begin the New Year much like he began 2002, defending his past role as a supervisor of sexually abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, which he left in 1993.

Hughes will return to Boston in January 2003 to testify before a state grand jury investigating possible criminal violations stemming from claims that he and other bishops under Cardinal Bernard Law shielded pedophile priests from prosecution. Hughes served as Law's second-in-command from 1990-93. He has denied any deliberate wrongdoing, but has admitted to errors in judgment in the continued assignment of known pedophile priests who continued to abuse children. Hughes is also a named defendant in more than a dozen lawsuits filed by survivors of sexual abuse and their families.

Hughes was installed as archbishop of New Orleans -- the nation's second oldest Catholic diocese -- on Jan. 3, 2002. Three days later, The Boston Globe published an expose on the Catholic Church scandals that rocked the nation and led to the resignation of Cardinal Law by year's end.

The roiling scandals prompted a reexamination of old Church files in New Orleans and the subsequent suspension of eight priests and two deacons accused of abusing children. The local archdiocese reported that it had paid $875,000 in civil judgments since 1980 for minors harmed by sexually abusive priests, but there was little evidence that those offenders had made their way into the local criminal justice system. Indeed, the Boston scandals revived old suspicions about collusion between the Church and two powerful institutions here in New Orleans:

· Media critics of Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick alleged that the outgoing district attorney, a Catholic with close ties to Church hierarchy, failed to vigorously prosecute a former priest in 1991 who was acquitted of child porn charges. As in the past, Connick in 2002 angrily rejected such criticisms as "absurd" and "dishonest reporting."

Despite the well-publicized establishment of a Church hotline for victims of sexual abuse by priests, few new complaints were made to police and none resulted in charges by the district attorney's office. Connick's 29 years in office will conclude Jan. 10, 2003, with a Roman Catholic mass in his honor.

· With the exception of some strong coverage of a national bishops conference in Dallas last summer, The Times-Picayune's initial coverage of Hughes' role in the scandal ranged from timid to obsequious. Localized reporting of Hughes' role in the Boston scandals tended to follow the lead of The New York Times or the Globe by several weeks if at all. In fact, the T-P failed to report extensive references to Hughes in Cardinal Law's June depositions because the local daily elected to run a Los Angeles Times wire story on the testimony, which made no mention of New Orleans' highest ranking Catholic official ("The Confidential File," Aug. 27).

Out of Tallulah

In late December 2001, Louisiana juvenile-prison guards stepped forward in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court and unlocked the shackles on a young man. He walked out the door with long strides. Just a few minutes earlier, Judge Mark Doherty had issued a ruling that concluded that the young man had been telling the truth, that his jaw had been broken by one Tallulah guard while another guard held him in a chokehold. Doherty questioned why there were so many broken bones, particularly fractured jaws, in Swanson Correctional Center for Youth/Madison Parish Unit, known informally as Tallulah. "Where in this place does anyone, can anyone feel safe?" Doherty asked ("Can This Prison Change Its Stripes?" Nov. 6, 2001).

Doherty released the young man because he found that the "outright physical abuse" and dearth of mental-health treatment, educational programming and rehabilitative options violated the prisoner's federal and state constitutional rights. The Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) appealed Doherty's decision. The case sat for about a year in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and then, on Nov. 6, a judgment upheld Doherty's original ruling. "Unconstitutional treatment of a youth that has been placed in state custody for the purpose of rehabilitation cannot be tolerated if we are to maintain any hope for the future of our youth," the court wrote. "Human dignity and the constitutions of the United States and Louisiana demand no less."

Less than a week later, Doherty issued an order that the six youths from his court who now were being held at Tallulah must be moved, because they were being held in unconstitutional conditions of confinement. He ordered DOC to transfer the young men to other facilities within 30 days. If the DOC didn't follow the order in a timely fashion, Doherty said, juvenile court would hold it in contempt of court and levy fines of $100 per day per youth.

The DOC asked the Fourth Circuit and the Louisiana Supreme Court for an emergency stay. The Supreme Court asked the DOC to voluntarily move the kids, and the DOC complied. On Dec. 19, the Supreme Court ordered the entire case remanded to Doherty's court for a full hearing to see whether the current conditions are still unconstitutional. The hearing is scheduled to begin on Feb. 10, 2003.

Doherty's actions have shown admirable courage, says Sarah Ottinger, legal director for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). "I hope that other juvenile judges around the state will take a closer look at what the youth at Tallulah are subjected to on a daily basis," she says.

Into the Night

In November, Robert, an HIV-positive inmate, was released from Orleans Parish Prison shortly before 1 a.m. ("Released in the Night," Dec. 10). His sister and mother say that he was released without any assistance -- even though he had suffered a stroke that incapacitated his entire left side. Prison officials say he was fine when he was released

On Christmas Day, Robert died, with his mother and sister by his side. His sister says that he was weakened both by the HIV and the effects of his stay in jail. "He had to just leave away from here," she says.


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