Sunday, July 08, 2007

On crime and keeping promises

Earlier this week I was asked to write about the Dinerral Shavers case for the Times-Picayune; the op-ed appears in today's paper. I haven't been able to find it online, so until I find the link, you can read the whole text here:


Six months ago, on Jan. 11, the people of New Orleans marched on City Hall to protest an epidemic of violent crime. There were 3,000 of us, according to local reports, or 5,000, if you believed the out-of-town press. And each person marching was there for the thousands of others who would have been there if they could.
        We wanted change. We wanted to feel safe in our city. We wanted leadership from our silent leaders. Mayor Ray Nagin vowed that fighting crime would be his daily priority.
        One of the speakers that morning was Nakita Shavers, a sophomore political science major at Florida A&M. Two weeks earlier, she had lost her older brother Dinerral. Her family had been mourning in Baton Rouge, but drove down to join the march, having no idea that they would arrive to find thousands of New Orleanians united. Nakita spoke of her desire to return to her city after she graduates, to become a community leader, to create change. "But I'm worried," she added, "that there won't be a city to return to."
        A few weeks later I accompanied Nakita to the district attorney's office, were we met with the assistant district attorney assigned to the case. Nakita had decided to take a leave of absence from school, in order to follow the progress of this case through the court system, and to work with a series of school programs and youth music clinics that had emerged from the march. The assistant DA assured us that this case was a lucky one: they had already made an arrest; they had established a motive; they had a gun and statements from witnesses. "Usually we don't ever get any of that," the assistant DA said.
        Of course, there were still unanswered questions. Chief among them was the issue of when they might be able to get a ballistics report on the gun. The Police Department's crime lab had been destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and the evidence had to be sent out of town for testing. "How long can it take?" I asked. Three months? Six months? We were assured it would not take that long.
        What about witness protection? That, we were told, doesn't really exist. "It's witness assistance," we were told. Was there any chance of the case not going to trial? No chance, we were told.
        Nakita attended every hearing in the case, as well as several other cases. She met with other victims and survivors. She heard, time and time again, of cases that collapsed or disappeared into black holes of continuances and 701 releases. And yet, remarkably, she remained faithful. Just days before the case was dismissed I sat with her as she assured a concerned Swiss journalist that she felt certain she would see justice in the case.
        This is not how a 20-year-old girl should have to spend her sophomore year.
        Then last week, the district attorney's office announced that the suspect in Dinerral's killing would not be prosecuted. The case had collapsed.
        How did everything fall apart?
        Six months later, the case still rested on the testimony of a single underage witness, who was now refusing to testify. A ballistics test on the gun -- found beneath a nearby house two days later -- showed it was definitely the gun used to kill Dinerral, but there were no fingerprints on it or any other way to link the gun to the suspect.  No one else  on the scene was being called as a witness, for reasons that are were unclear.
        While there were some key players who offered Nakita support--Warren Riley and Councilman James Carter, to name two--the overall sense was that one of chaos.  Other players in the case gave contradictory information, including reports that there were, in fact, no ballistics back on the gun.  In the end, it seemed as if the prosecution was working with less than it had started with, so it was easy to understand why the young witness might feel reluctant to put herself and her family on the line.
        It has been a startling education for those of us, like Nakita, who have been lucky enough to be sheltered, until now, from the realities of the criminal court system and violent crime. And as the violence in our city continues to climb, we continue to wait in the presence of our strangely mute mayor, who has yet to make good on the promises he made Jan. 11.
        Nakita will return to school in Florida this fall, and eventually she will make good on her promise, to come back to New Orleans, and continue the work she has unexpectedly already started.
         Perhaps, by   then, the city will have found some way of righting itself, to prove itself worthy of her faith and her return.

Ken Foster of New Orleans is an author and one of the founders of www.silenceisviolence.org. His e-mail address is kenrfoster@gmail.com.

No comments: