Off the Desk:
Barton Springs Pool swimmers will likely be left high and dry for at least several weeks this spring while the city begins retrofitting the pool to ensure the safety of the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. City officials say the needed construction at the pool could take 45 days, but engineering firm Espey Huston Associates Inc. says the project could last more than 200 days. Pool regulars will meet to discuss these gloomy prospects at an emergency meeting at 10am Sunday, on the west bank of the pool. --A.S.
The second of six town hall meetings on AISD school boundary changes will be held tonight, Jan.28, at 7pm at Bowie High School on Slaughter Lane. The remainder occur Feb. 1-4: Monday at Mendez Middle School, Tuesday at Anderson High, Wednesday at the Carruth Administration Bldg., and Thursday at Travis High (this last one will be conducted in Spanish). An AISD Board vote on the boundary changes is expected Feb. 25, following a public hearing on Monday, Feb. 22. For more info, call the Boundary hotline at 414-1200, or see http://www.austin.isd.tenet.edu. --L.T.
While 14-year-old Lacresha Murray's family of supporters awaits a decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the circumstances surrounding Austin Police Department homicide detectives' two-and-a-half hour interrogation of Lacresha five days after the beating death of Jayla Belton in May 1996 continue to garner national attention.
At issue is the question of whether Lacresha was legally in the custody of police at the time of the now-infamous May 29 interrogation. On Jan. 18 -- the day after 60 Minutes ran an 11-minute segment on Lacresha's case -- Amnesty International USA executive director William Schulz sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno asking the Department of Justice to review the case to determine whether "the international standards" regarding children facing police questioning are being followed. On Dec. 23, Amnesty International's Dina Coloma sent a similar letter to former Texas A.G. Dan Morales, concerned that "Lacresha Murray's rights as a child ... as reflected in Texas law, were violated during proceedings against her and may have unfairly affected the outcome of her case."
The day after two-year-old Jayla Belton's death, Lacresha (then 11 years old) and three of her other young siblings were taken to the Texas Baptist Children's Home in Round Rock while the APD investigated Jayla's death. Lacresha was in the home from May 24 until May 29 without her family knowing where she was, and without any consultation with a lawyer. On May 30, Lacresha was charged with capital murder.
The question of whether Lacresha was officially in custody makes up a large part of the appeal Austin attorney Keith Hampton filed with the Third Circuit Court. Under the Texas Family Code, juveniles must be taken before a judge prior to and after questioning when in police custody, to ensure that they understand their rights as well as any statement the police might take during questioning. But this only applies if the child is a suspect in police custody. At each of Lacresha's trials, Judge John Dietz ruled that the girl was not officially in custody at the time of the police interrogation, and therefore her statement was allowed to be used in court.
The Travis County D.A.'s office has tried to play down the significance of the interrogation -- prosecutor Gary Cobb has repeatedly said it was not an integral piece of evidence nor was it ever even viewed as a confession by the prosecutors -- but there remain questions about what role the D.A.'s office actually played in helping to arrange the interrogation. As Coloma writes in her Dec. 23 letter: "It is reported that when the police officers contacted the district attorney's office on this issue, they were encouraged to view the interrogation as non-custodial and therefore not subject to the procedure outlined above."
In fact, APD officer Ernesto Pedraza testified at Lacresha's second pretrial hearing in January 1997 that he was reluctant to take Lacresha before a magistrate because it might hinder the ability to obtain a confession. Pedraza further testified that police called the D.A.'s office and spoke to prosecutor Stephanie Emmons, who, according to court records, "explained ... that this was a noncustodial interview." When the Chronicle asked Emmons about this seeming conflict of interest during a July 1998 interview, she declined to comment, citing the pending appeal.
But for Lacresha's supporters, the actions of the APD and the D.A.'s office are still of paramount concern. "If we indulge the fantasy that she was not in custody ... they will learn that this is an easier way to [interrogate juveniles], and that's what they'll do," said Hampton.
But Judge Dietz says he didn't find anything in the law that pointed to this situation as being one of custody. "We have to be careful in every case," he said. "And if we make mistakes, we need to do better. I can't be critical about the fact that people are entitled to criticize. And if they feel there is an injustice, they need to speak out." Dietz said that after the court rules on Lacresha's appeal, the Texas Legislature has the option to examine the state's child custody laws and further specify conditions.
But for now, Lacresha's family and friends continue their any-day-now mantra, waiting for the Court of Appeals ruling. And with the growing interest of groups like Amnesty International and the national media, one thing seems certain: The nation will be watching. --J.S.
It was expected to be a heated debate over whether Travis High School would continue to play "Dixie" at football games or showcase their Ol' Rebel mascot in the halls. But as nearly 200 proud parents and students squeezed into the tiny cafeteria at Dawson Elementary School last Wednesday, waving their school's colors, the matter appeared quickly settled -- the Rebel was staying.
The meeting lasted just an hour as students, parents, school officials, and representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) voiced opposition and support for the mascot. The meeting was called as tensions came to a head over the mascot's negative connotations: slavery and racism. For years, parents, students, and minority groups have attacked the school's Confederate-era regalia, asking the administration to change it. They said they were disturbed by students who wrapped Confederate flags around their heads and waved them at football games while the school band played "Dixie."
"These symbols are a constant reminder of a legacy of hate and injustice," said Brenda Urps, whose son once played for the Travis band. "We all know how hard it is to change a tradition, but if Austin is really trying to practice racial reconciliation, now is the time."
To ease tensions, school officials removed all flags from the campus last year, along with a wall-sized painting of a Southern plantation in the cafeteria. But the students at Travis, who are 70% Hispanic and 12% black, say they understand -- but are not disturbed by -- the negative symbolism tied to Ol' Reb and "Dixie."
"This is not a racist school," said Nancy Ackley, president of the Travis High student council. "We're not ignorant of the past. We all know and love each other. There are so many other things we should be worrying about instead of petty things. This is petty."
Hadley Anderson, editor of the school's newspaper, said the issue is more important to outsiders than it is to students at Travis. "This is really separating us," she said. "We're here talking about something that isn't a problem at Travis. We're looking at the future, not at the past."
Area 3 Superintendent Yolanda Rocha says students and parents will be given a chance to vote on the issue in the coming weeks. But from the way the crowd erupted into the school fight song following the meeting, it doesn't appear that anything will change. --B.M.
Starving for Relief
More than 130 Austinites gathered at the First United Methodist Church last week as an internationally known nutritionist gave a dire report on the impact of economic sanctions on the people of Iraq. Like other opponents, Dr. Peter Pellet criticized the 8-year-old United Nations policy limiting aid to Iraq, saying it has not weakened Saddam Hussein's regime, but rather devastated the citizenry of the war-torn country. Pellet, a professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has made several trips to Iraq as a member of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a team of agricultural and nutrition experts who evaluate the food, nutrition, and health consequences of the U.N. embargo.
When the embargo was imposed in 1991, the average calories consumed per person daily in Iraq dropped from 3,240 to 2,250. The latest ration provides about 2,050 calories a day to the average Iraqi citizen. By comparison, Pellet said, the average American consumes nearly 3,500 calories a day. Pellett called the government food ration "a crude, basic diet," consisting of flour, rice, sugar, oil, and beans. The rations are sold at affordable prices, but do not include any meat, eggs, fruit, or vegetables. Baby formula is available for children until they are a year old.
"Malnutrition is caused by poverty, and a sanction is artificially induced poverty that hits the poor and the vulnerable first," said Pellett. The sanctions have been particularly devastating to Iraqi children: The World Health Organization recently reported 5,000 to 6,000 deaths a month of children under the age of five in Iraq. Pellet showed slides of Iraqi children with swollen feet, "skin and bones for limbs," distended bellies, and exposed ribcages. "From a country that prides itself on humanitarian issues, we are killing thousands of children," said Pellet of the U.S. government's continuing support for sanctions.
Humanitarian groups say that modest efforts such as U.N. resolution 986, the "oil-for-food" deal that allows Iraq to sell $5 billion in oil every six months to provide some relief to citizens, are inadequate to repair Iraq's infrastructure and shattered economy. In 1990, one Iraqi dina was worth more than three U.S. dollars. By 1995 the exchange rate had plummeted to 3,000 Iraqi dina for every U.S. dollar, said Pellet.
Others involved in efforts in Iraq will be coming to town in the coming months. Former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Dennis Halliday, who resigned in protest of the sanctions, is scheduled to speak on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at the University of Texas' Sid Richardson Hall at 7 pm. Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of the Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness, which has been taking medicine and supplies to Iraq since 1996, is scheduled to stop in Austin on March 23 during a Texas tour. For more info, call 263-1883 or 471-1990. --E.G.