Louisiana editorial roundup

October 16, 2019

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:


Oct. 15

The Advocate on police reform in light of the fatal shooting of Atatiana “Tay” Jefferson by an officer:

No one wants to lose a loved one, especially not as a result of a shooting. We see news reports about shootings involving anger, fights and jealousy. The reasons do not matter when someone we love is killed. Then there’s the senseless, incomprehensible shooting of someone like Atatiana “Tay” Jefferson, 28, a Xavier University alum living in Fort Worth, Texas, who was shot and killed while playing a video game with her nephew in the home she shared with her ailing mother.

Shot by a Fort Worth police officer.

Black, brown or white, no one deserves to die this way. A police officer, responding to a nonemergency call, based on the suspicious look of an open front door in the wee hours, shot through a window without announcing himself as a police officer. We grieve with Jefferson’s family and the Xavier University of Louisiana community locally and nationally.

In a letter to the institution’s community, Xavier President Reynold Verret accurately points out that this unfortunate shooting demonstrates that policing in this nation needs additional reform.

“We are deeply dismayed by the news of another African American killed in her own home by the police,” Verret wrote. “This time, she is one of our Xavier University of Louisiana alumnae, very close to our heart.”

“We should expect safety when we call on our police, whose mission is to protect and serve,” he wrote. “Sadly, our fathers and mothers must caution daughters and sons on their interactions with officers. Families in our communities hesitate to call on their protectors out of fear that they be killed. This should not be.”

He is right, of course. This should not be. The neighbor who called police because he feared for his neighbor’s safety says he wishes he hadn’t made the call because his neighbor might be alive.

Verret notes that policing is “broken for some,” and he obviously means African Americans.

#AtatianaJefferson, #TayJefferson and #SayHerName have been trending on social media since the weekend because so many are angry, frustrated that yet another African American has been killed by a police officer. Some have planned, or suggested, protests, rallies and vigils.

The officer involved resigned, and Fort Worth police quickly charged him with murder. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price called the incident “unjustified.” She and interim Police Chief Ed Kraus have promised a thorough investigation, and they have asked the FBI to join the investigation. That’s a good start, but it’s not enough.

Jefferson’s untimely, unfortunate and unnecessary death might rapidly become even more controversial if Fort Worth officials fail to be transparent and if outside agency officials aren’t intimately involved.

Online: www.theadvocate.com


Oct. 14

The Houma Courier on issues with the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood buyout program:

A new study finds yet more problems with the federal program that spends taxpayer money to buy and demolish homes that flood repeatedly.

Published last week in the journal Science Advances, the biggest issue researchers found is that the program often benefits wealthy counties and parishes regardless of whether lower-income or rural areas are more likely to flood.

The problem is that a lot of poorer communities with limited tax revenue can’t afford the 25% matching money necessary to get the FEMA buyout grants, study authors told The Associated Press in a story published by The Courier and Daily Comet. Some communities don’t have the local government staff to manage such a program. If only communities that do have those resources use the program, grants probably aren’t going to reach people who may need it most.

Other findings show the taxpayer money isn’t always meeting the greatest need. For instance, the top three states in total property damage are in the middle of the buyout pack. Florida had $98.8 billion in damage, Louisiana $85.4 billion and Mississippi $34.2 billion. Yet Florida is 24th in the number of homes purchased, Mississippi 22nd and Louisiana 19th, with a total of just over 2,000 buyouts in the three states.

Researchers also analyzed publicly available FEMA data and identified 3,780 completed buyouts from 1989 through 2017. The average buyout, the study found, takes 5.7 years.

That kind of ridiculous delay was among the findings of Courier and Daily Comet reporting in a story published last month.

Officials and residents who have participated in the buyout program or in a related one that elevates flood-prone homes say the process takes about four years of paperwork, red tape and coordination. Such long delays dissuade potential applicants from even trying. And they expose flood-prone homes to four more hurricane seasons and four more years in which a rainstorm could swamp their houses -- again.

Unlike a buyout, the homeowner must bear a portion of the cost to elevate, usually about 25 percent. One resident said elevating her modest home in Houma would cost about $8,000 out of pocket. Officials say that cost is too high for many locals, who sometimes opt against participating because they can’t afford it.

Buyouts, The Courier and Daily Comet found, pose problems too. In some cases, FEMA offers owners so little for their house that it won’t come anywhere near the cost of buying a new one in a less flood-prone area. One reason for such a low value: The owner’s current house is prone to flooding.

Congress and FEMA need to fix these and other problems and pave the way for a smoother process for those who face such decisions across Louisiana’s coast and elsewhere. It’s past time for action.

Online: www.houmatoday.com


Oct. 14

The Advocate on altering the Sixth Amendment to explicitly demand unanimous juries in convictions:

Last year, Louisiana voters rejected the state’s nearly singular practice of allowing criminal convictions from divided juries. By a decisive 64-36 margin, they said that the rule, rooted in the Jim Crow past and an apparent factor in unequal outcomes into the present, should change.

That settled the matter for cases starting in 2019, but it left for another day the question of whether non-unanimous verdicts for past crimes should stand. That day arrived on the first Monday in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over whether the 10-2 conviction of Evangelisto Ramos for a 2014 New Orleans murder was constitutional.

That the justices took up the case at all is one sign that they find split verdicts, until recently only allowed in Louisiana and Oregon, suspect. Another came during the hearing, in which the lawyer defending the state faced tough questions.

We share the justices’ skepticism. This paper supported the 2018 Louisiana constitutional amendment requiring unanimity going forward, following an investigative series that found the provision was introduced to minimize the voices of African-American jurors and that black defendants are more likely to be convicted by non-unanimous juries. The same concerns undermine verdicts secured under those rules.

The underlying legal argument centers on the Sixth Amendment guarantees of defendants’ rights at trial, which do not explicitly include the right to a unanimous jury but have long been understood that way. Many federal protections have been incorporated to cover state law, and Ramos’ attorney argues that the right to a unanimous verdict should be, too.

In the high court’s most recent ruling, handed down in 1972, four justices found that there’s no right to a unanimous jury, four argued that there is for both state and federal trials, and a single justice found that such a right exists at the federal level but not for state charges. The state relied on that precedent in defending the status quo.

But several justices voiced doubts.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that Alexander Hamilton said of the right to a unanimous jury that “it’s so self-evident, we don’t need to include it” in the Bill of Rights. Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that the old rules were enacted “in a desire, apparently, to diminish the voices of black jurors in the late 1890s.” Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned the wisdom of preserving “an incorrect view of the United States Constitution” to avoid complications from the court reversing its prior view and opening old cases to retroactive scrutiny.

Such a change would indeed be messy, and could reopen old wounds. Appeals under such a ruling would be complicated by the fact that, in many cases, there are no records of how jurors voted.

We don’t take those concerns lightly, but find they don’t hold up against the bedrock principle of fairness. Like last year’s amendment, we don’t think this is a close call.

Online: www.theadvocate.com