Off the Desk:
Wedged between chain-link construction fences in front of the courthouse, and rush-hour traffic on Guadalupe, members of the Austin Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby, the Austin Latino Lesbian Gay Organization, and other concerned citizens gathered Monday waving fluorescent placards and decrying the murder trial in the 1996 stabbing death of Pablo Zuniga as another example of Travis County's "injustice system." Zuniga was stabbed to death near a "gay cruising area" on the Town Lake hike-and- bike trail. Charles Edward Lowery, who admitted he killed Zuniga, but said he did so in self-defense, was found not guilty of murder. He did get five years probation for tampering with evidence; he tossed the murder weapon in a dumpster.
Part of the problem with the Lowery trial is that prosecutors didn't do enough to screen jurors for potential anti-gay biases, said ALGRL'sDianne Hardy-Garcia. "We know from national polls that gays are three times more likely to face bias in the courtroom," she said. "And yet here they did nothing to interview jurors about anti-gay bias." Prosecutor Gary Cobb said he felt he did as much as was possible to screen the jurors, "but in general, people aren't going to say anything like, 'I'm prejudiced against gays,' any more than they'd say, 'I'm prejudiced against blacks.'"
Protesters said the defense used Zuniga's sexuality to alienate the jurors -- a tactic they claim is used all too often when the victim is homosexual. But defense attorney Chris Gunter said that's ridiculous: "I'm not even sure I uttered the word 'gay' during the trial," he said. "Prejudice and hate crimes are a problem. But this case had nothing to do with gay bashing," said Gunter.
Still, Hardy-Garcia and others say that this case has once again brought up the need for hate-crime legislation in Texas. "We're facing a tough battle with hate-crime legislation once again," she said. "We need to be much louder in our support of hate-crime laws. We've been waiting far too long for justice." -- J.S.
If UT administrators thought the controversy surrounding the Hopwood case had cooled to a manageable simmer, they were disillusioned last Thursday, when what began as a peaceful rally protesting the university's broad application of the Hopwood decision boiled unexpectedly into a full-scale occupation of the UT Tower. About 40 students, many of them members of the student-led Anti-Racist Organizing Committee, spent a cold and sleepless night in the Tower's main hall on Thursday, as attempts by supporters outside to deliver food and blankets to the protesters were thwarted by university police, who locked the building around 5pm. The demonstration, which successfully shut down operations at the Main Building for about 12 hours, ended Friday morning when UT president Larry Faulkner acceded, in amended form, to several of the students' demands.
The sit-in began after Faulkner, who agreed to meet briefly with the crowd of students who marched from the rally to his office in the Tower, refused to sign a handwritten statement avowing his commitment to affirmative action at UT. Telling a crowd of jeering students that "affirmative action is a method and not a goal" to achieve diversity, Faulkner left the room after about five minutes of discussion. However, the next day, Faulkner issued a statement virtually identical to the one written by protesters, agreeing to schedule four town hall meetings with students, and to address their concerns in an open letter in The Daily Texan.
Sushanta Parikh, a UT senior who spent the night in the Tower, said that students felt "snubbed" by Faulkner's cool reception. "As the figurehead of this institution, he has the moral obligation to promote the interests of this institution," he said. "This escalated into something that it did not have to be."
On Monday morning, after two much-needed nights of sleep, student representatives met with Faulkner to determine the schedule and agenda for the town hall meetings, the first of which is scheduled for Nov. 9. J. Reed, an AROC member who described the meeting with Faulkner as "cooperative," said that the students hope to get a "clarification" of administrators' interpretation of the Hopwood injunction during the series of meetings, which will stretch into next spring. Organizers are hoping the meetings will also revive campus interest in affirmative action -- an issue whose profile has dipped noticeably in recent months as the Hopwood case winds its way slowly through the Fifth Circuit's maze of appeals and deliberations. "We feel like a lot of the problem, in terms of absence of activity, is due to complacency," Reed said. "We think we can overcome that." -- E.C.B.
The message on the answering machine at the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund headquarters last Thursday was an ecstatic Erin Rogers yelling, "WE WON!" Her excitement was echoed by environmentalists and citizens of Texas and Mexico, who celebrated a monumental -- and unexpected -- victory when commissioners from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) unanimously rejected the proposal for a nuclear waste dump in Sierra Blanca.
After a six-hour hearing at the TNRCC offices, the three commissioners denied the license to build a low-level waste site on the 500-acre plot of land in Hudspeth County. They citeda lack of adequate data concerning the potential risk of the fault line below the site, and the impact the dump would have on tourism, personal safety, and property values in the area.
"After the decision was made, everyone started screaming," said Rogers, who has devoted her life to the Sierra Blanca cause since 1994. "We didn't expect it."
Not everyone was pleased: For 17 years, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Authority has been trying to find suitable dumping grounds for nuclear waste from hospitals and nuclear power plants, and they were hoping this site would end their search. But the site was problematic for a number of reasons, said opponents, including the fact that the site would sit on an active earthquake zone. Opponents said lawmakers were ignoring the impact the dump would have on the area's water supply, and the already poor socio-economic conditions in Sierra Blanca. "It took an incredible act of political pressure to force a common sense scientific decision," Rogers said.
TNRCC spokesman Andy Saenz said the commission is not allowed to comment on the decision for 60-90 days. He said it is "rumored" that the waste authority will appeal the decision. If they do, the issue would go before TNRCC again, and could then go to the state district court in Travis County. -- B.M.
Skaggs Trial Begins
A jury of eight women and four men was selected Monday in the state's 299th District Court to hear the trial of Roger Skaggs, 58, charged in the 1996 death of his wife Penny Skaggs, 54. At the time of the murder, Roger lived in a $300,000 home in northwest Austin with his wife, and was a high-ranking executive of APS Systems, where he is still employed. He was also -- his lawyers admitted in court -- having an affair with Vanessa Ann Ferguson, a
26-year-old woman who worked at APS. Ferguson is the only person who can corroborateSkaggs' claim that he was at his office when the murder took place. But she has not responded to subpoenas or warrants, and cannot be located by the state's investigators. District Judge Jon Wisser ruled at the trial's outset that no mention of Ferguson's failure to appear for trial would be permitted in front of the jury.
In seven hours of jury selection, a jury pool of over 40 people were questioned in detail by both Buddy Meyer, the state's prosecutor, andRoy Minton, Skaggs' defense lawyer. Questions ranged from prospective jurors' familiarity with DNA, to whether or not knowledge of Skaggs' extramarital affair would prejudice their ruling.
On Tuesday, the state gave opening arguments and called four witnesses -- the EMS and law enforcement officials who arrived on the scene at the Skaggs' home, where Penny was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death. Out of hours of detailed testimony regarding the location of people and objects in the home, the most damning piece of testimony given was APD Officer Thomas Sweeney's assertion that Roger Skaggs was "fake crying" on the night of the murder for the benefit of law enforcement. The trial is expected to last until Nov. 6. -- K.V.
Questions for Jim Bob
Last Friday, Indonesia's attorney general said he wants to question Jim Bob Moffett about the contract of work that Moffett's company, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, holds in Irian Jaya. The company's relationship with the regime of former Indonesian strongman Suharto has come under increasing scrutiny since Northwestern University professor Jeffrey Winters,an expert on Indonesia, made allegations earlier this month that Freeport improperly influenced government officials during the Suharto era. On Oct. 14, Agence France Presse reported that Winters compared having Suharto's cronies investigate allegations of corruption to "calling out the mafia to fight crime." In response, Indonesian officials have threatened to prosecute Winters, and banned him from entering the country. One of the ministers implicated by Winters was Ginandjar Kartasasmita, the former Minister of Mines, who oversaw the 1991 approval of an expansion of Freeport's huge copper and gold mine. The latest imbroglio has put Freeport and Moffett on the defensive in Jakarta: On Oct. 20, a special commission of the Indonesian House of Representatives urged the government to re-negotiate the contract of work between Freeport and the government. The Jakarta Post reported that Indonesian legislators believe the "taxes imposed on Freeport, including the 35% corporate income tax and the 1.5% royalty, to be too small."
As for Moffett's testimony, Garland Robinette, Freeport's communications vice president, told Dow Jones Newswires that Moffett is "more than happy to oblige" the request, but a date hasn't been set. For more info on this saga, see http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/boyer/fp. -- R.B.