The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Off the Desk:

November 20, 1998, News

Lacresha Murray, currently serving a 25-year sentence for the death of two-year-old Jayla Belton, received some high-profile support thisweek. In his Sunday column, The New York Times' Bob Herbert laced into Austin police and Travis County prosecutors, sharply criticizing their handling of Murray's case: "She remains trapped in a Texas-sized nightmare," Herbert wrote, "tricked into signing a confession she could barely read and surely didn't understand." Meanwhile, Murray's supporters nervously wait to hear whether the Third Court of Appeals will overturn the 14-year-old's conviction. The three-judge panel is expected to decide this month. A rally to free Lacresha is planned for noon Saturday on the Capitol's south sidewalk...

The Ethical Culture Fellowship of Austin (ECFA) announced this week it is suing Comptroller John Sharp for denying the organization religious tax-exempt status. ECFA says it meets all the requirements of the tax law, but is being penalized because it does not worship a supreme being. The comptroller's office says it has never granted an exemption for a nontheistic group, but in November of last year, a local Buddhist group was in fact given a religious tax exemption by the Office. Comptroller-elect Carole Keeton Rylander has stated her opposition to allowing such exemptions. But ACLU's Jay Jacobson, who is representing the ECFA, says the denial is a violation of the fellowship's constitutional rights: "The State of Texas has decided which churches get tax exempt status based on whether or not the government likes its theology."... --L.T.

Monday night, the KOOP Board of Trustees decided to let stand last week's decision to invalidate the elections for the station's community board. The election was invalidated, trustees said, because ballots were found to be missing from the ballot box, but many station members are suspicious of the trustees' action, because it was widely felt this election might eventually lead to the removal of the highly unpopular trustees. No word yet on how or when the election will be rescheduled... -- L.N.

Back Together Now?

Congregation Beth Israel is full of surprises. Two months ago, Temple Beth Israel's leadership shocked its members with news it would not move to the new Dell Jewish Community Campus -- a much anticipated 40-acre facility off Far West Boulevard, designated as the new home for the city's Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Federation of Austin, Jewish Family Services, Beth Israel, and Agudus Achim, Austin's conservative congregation. At the time, Beth Israel president Paul Keeper offered few details about the split between the DJCC and the city's largest Jewishcongregation, but cited fundamental differences between the temple and the DJCC's Development Corporation on financial, governance, and timing issues.

Now comes Beth Israel's latest surprise: A 12-page mailer sent to each of the temple's 1,250 member families asks that the move be reconsidered; reveals that negotiations with the DJCC have continued; and announces that the temple's Board of Trustees now considers the DJCC "the most viable option to meet the future needs of the congregation."

For most of Beth Israel's members and other Austin Jews who have been feverishly circulating Beth Israel's bulletin, the mailer provides a first glimpse at the financial nuts and bolts of the DJCC proposal. For example, it states Beth Israel proposes to sell its current Shoal Creek sitefor no less than $2.5 million. It would use $1.5 million in donations to purchase the DJCC site and to cover infrastructure costs, and raise an additional $5.5 million to build a sanctuary, social hall, and administrative offices. The proposal also includes a $250,000 expansion to a planned educational building that the DJCC has already agreed to buildand lease for 99 years to Beth Israel for $10 plus operating expenses, but which Beth Israel obviously believes is too small. The mailer also states that Beth Israel would be required to participate in a community-wide fundraising campaign designed to solicit the $7 million balance on the $12 million plan for the Dell campus.

In weeks to come, Beth Israel will hold a pair of in-house "town meetings" prior to a Dec. 6 full-congregation vote on the board's proposal. This will be the second time the congregation has voted on the proposal. In May, 1997, Beth Israel approved the move to the DJCC. But the growth of the congregation by about 100 families, and the emergence of additional financial information not available when the congregation first voted, has necessitated another vote.

So what if the congregation votes Dec. 6 to reject the move to the DJCC? The mailer outlines some alternatives, including staying at its Shoal Creek site, moving to a location other than the DJCC, or establishing off-site facilities for select Beth Israel functions. The proposal also briefly mentions one more surprise -- an option that would "establish a separate reform Jewish congregation with coordination, endorsement, and active support of Congregation Beth Israel." Although that possibility was reported in a previous Chronicle story and mentioned (or threatened) again by disgruntled congregants two months ago, it's the first time Beth Israel's board has publicly entertained the idea. With that option and several million dollars hanging in the balance, some Beth Israel congregants say now that it appears the onlything coming from the Beth Israel camp that's not a bombshell is that the Dec. 6 vote will profoundly impact the future of both the temple itself and the ambitious -- but long delayed -- DJCC plans. -- A.L.

The Book Thrown at Them

While the smell of Threadgill's grilled chicken and sausage dinners floated on the air, and literary lovers strolled among the booths at the Texas Book Festival on the west side of the Capitol Saturday morning, about 40 people marched at the intersection of 11th & Congress to protest the continued economic sanctions against Iraq. "Our main interest is to educate the American people about the effect of the sanctions," said Jere Locke of the Austin Anti-War Committee. "No media in Austin has ever told the truth about the sanctions -- that over one million people have died as a result." The timing of the protest coincided with a book reading by former President George Bush and Gen. Brent Scowcroft going on inside the Capitol's House Chambers. They were reading from their new book about the Persian Gulf War,A World Transformed; the book contains observations about the effects of the war on the Iraqi people, and protesters wanted to counter some of the authors' information. "Sanctions are weapons of mass destruction," said Romi Mahajan of the Austin Committee to End the Sanctions on Iraq. "Kids are dying by the thousands; there are no medicines or food."

While the chanting continued outside, several members of the group -- including UT journalism professor Bob Jensen -- took the protest into the chamber, where they questioned Bush and Scowcroft in front of an SRO crowd of onlookers. "Mr. Bush, why are you supporting Iraqi sanctions that kill Iraqi children?" a voice floated from the third-floor balcony. But instead of getting an answer, Jensen and two other protestors were arrested by DPS Capitol Police and charged with disrupting a meeting or procession -- a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500. News of the arrests energized protestors outside, who took their anger up the walk and into the capital rotunda, chanting "One, two, three, four, stop the sanctions, end the war," as the book reading ended and the rotunda balconies filled with onlookers. At the request of DPS officers, the crowd migrated back out to the Capitol steps, where they continued to protest for another half-hour before heading to DPS to check on their arrested colleagues. "Everyone is saying I was impolite," said Jensen. "But given the chance to be impolite again tomorrow in front of George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, I'd do it again. In the face of such destruction and death, I think being impolite is the least of our concerns."-- J.S.

A New Era

It's hard to believe, but Charles Whitman was on top of the University of Texas Tower for just 93 minutes. Nevertheless, the after-effects have been felt for generations. During that hour and a half, Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 31 others, in what was, at the time, the worst mass murder in American history. Last Thursday, the UT System Board of Regents decided that a new era at the UT Tower should begin. Regents agreed to spend about $500,000 to install iron barriers to prevent suicides (nine people have jumped to their death from the tower) and to make the observation deck accessible to people with disabilities. In a press statement, university president Larry Faulkner called the tower the "most important symbol of academic aspiration and achievement in Texas." He added that it is time to "actively use this icon of higher education in positive ways."

But for other people, the feelings are more personal. Robert Heard, an Austinite who was shot in the left shoulder by Whitman, agrees with the decision to reopen the observation deck. "I've always felt it should be reopened. It's too big a penalty to keep it closed," said Heard, who was working as a reporter for the Associated Press when he was shot. And Gary Lavergne, author of the book A Sniper in the Tower, says few places have the symbolic impact of the UT tower. For his generation -- older baby boomers -- the tower is like the Texas Book Depository: a solitary monument to a horrific tragedy that forever changed their world.

The regents' plan calls for security personnel to accompany all visitors to the observation deck. To cover the cost of the renovations and security, the university plans to charge visitors about $6 apiece. Renovations should be completed in time for spring graduation. In the meantime, if you want to see what the view from atop the tower looks like, go to: -- R.B.

March for Mumia

More than two dozen Austin residents gathered Nov. 7 in the rain outside the Federal Building and marched to the Capitol to raise awareness to the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been on death row for 17 years, and whose final state appeal was denied Oct. 29 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Similar protests were held in 25 American cities and a dozen European cities. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a founding member of the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia, was convicted in 1981 of first-degree murder and given the death penalty for the fatal shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal's lawyers and supporters have been calling for a retrial since 1982, after one of the main witnesses admitted to lying. An International People's Tribunal, concluding that the case violated international law, was presented to the UN Human Right Commission and signed by judges from France, Spain, Haiti, South Africa, Germany, Egypt, and the U.S. For more info about Mumia Abu-Jamal's case and any upcoming events, see or contact Jackie Dana at [email protected]. -- E.G.

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