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Death row inmate won't appeal, and other news.



Death Row Inmate Won't Appeal

Another Tennessee death row inmate could face execution in just a week.

Stephen Michael West has not filed any appeals that would stop his scheduled March 1st execution. Sharon Curtis Flair, spokesperson for State Attorney General Paul Summers, says that their office is "treating this as if he will be executed."

"There are no appeals on file and there is no stay," says Flair.

The inmate has chosen the electric chair -- a method of death that he has chosen over lethal injection. West was condemned to death at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution before the state legislature passed a law that mandates all inmates be lethally injected.

West was sentenced to die by a jury for stabbing Lake City residents Wanda Romines, 51, and her daughter Sheila Romines, 16, near their home by Big Ridge State Park. He also raped Sheila. Twenty-four years old when the crime occurred, West was also found guilty of larceny and aggravated kidnapping of the Romines. Photographs at the trial demonstrated that the mother and daughter were tortured before they were murdered. West did not act alone, though. With him at the time of the killings was Ronnie Martin, who told agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that he instructed West to kill Sheila because Martin had already killed her mother. Martin and Sheila also knew each other; they had attended the same high school.

In January of last year, West's defense attorney John Rogers argued before the Tennessee Supreme Court that his client had been victimized as a child, telling the court that West was born in a mental institution to a mother who constantly abused him throughout his youth and adolescence.

Tennessee Department of Corrections spokesperson Steve Hayes says that no attorneys have since represented West, but Chattanooga firm Miller and Martin is now reviewing the inmate's case history.

Death penalty abolitionists are speaking about West's decision to speed up his sentence.

Randy Tatel, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition Against State Killing in Nashville, says West's death is a form of state-assisted suicide.

"It points out even more reasons why the death penalty fails as public policy," says Tatel. "The state of Michigan is prosecuting a doctor for doing that, but here we have a man who's expressed a wish to die in which the government is complicit in carrying that wish out. Tennessee has executed one person in 40 years. Are we going to become like Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, where the state is a killing machine?"

But Tennessee Department of Corrections spokesperson Steve Hayes suspects that West's position is a false alarm of sorts.

"This has happened before," Hayes said. "But perhaps not this close to an execution date." -- Ashley Fantz

Work Putts Along For Whitehaven Golf

Golfers in Whitehaven will have to wait a while longer before they'll have a course in their neighborhood. Though the city council voted almost a year ago to purchase the former Whitehaven Country Club property, construction isn't likely to begin for another year.

"The residents really want a golf course in Whitehaven," says Councilwoman Tajuan Stout Mitchell, who represents the area. "The council made a decision and appropriated the money for the course, so it's not money that we're waiting on."

Whitehaven residents have been asking the city for a golf course since McKellar Park was acquired by Memphis International Airport six years ago. The council approved $2 million to purchase the former country club last spring and the purchase was finalized last October.

Earlier this month the park commission submitted a four-phase master plan to the city council, which shows that planning on the Whitehaven Community Park will not be completed until the end of September of this year, with construction to begin after the final plans are approved.

"It's a slow process," says Patrick Carter, a Whitehaven resident and golfer. "We'd like to see something done before it all goes to weeds."

Residents also say they'd like for the Whitehaven Community Park to have a recreation center and a municipal pool. District 3 does not have a community swimming pool.

John Vergos, chair of the city council's parks committee, says the Whitehaven Community Park will not be included in the city's enterprise fund, which dictates that city golf courses be financially self-sufficient, relying on greens fees and not the city. -- Rebekah Gleaves

Jail Rape Is Still Under Investigation

A February 19th Commercial Appeal story reported that an internal investigation by the Shelby County Sheriff's Department has been unable to verify a rape that allegedly occurred in the county jail. But according to the sex crimes investigator in charge of the case, it's still ongoing.

Lieutenant M.A. Featherstone told the Flyer that she has not officially closed her probe into a complaint Joseph Liberto filed against the jail administration. Liberto claimed that he had been assaulted by four inmates who forced the 54-year-old to perform oral sex and then anally raped him with a spoon. Liberto went public with his story in the Flyer's January 18-24th cover story, "A Night in Hell."

According to The Commercial Appeal story, Liberto's allegations were uncorroborated by witnesses the department interviewed, including an inmate who supposedly had full view of Liberto's cell and perhaps might have seen the incident.

Liberto's medical records indicate that he suffered tears to his anal cavity, intimating forced entry.

Attorneys Richard Fields and Kathleen Caldwell are representing Liberto. Caldwell calls insinuations that Liberto's injuries are self-inflicted or that they occurred outside of the jail "preposterous."

"In terms of [the sheriff's investigators] asking questions -- they've tended to be leading or suggestive to what they wish him to say or for others they've interviewed to say," says Caldwell. "Of course, if you ask questions a certain way, you're going to get the answers that you want -- in this case those that don't corroborate Mr. Liberto. Of course,[the sheriff's department is] trying to take this case out of the pattern of other problems occurring at the jail. But that's not going to work."

Fields called the police department's statements about the case "propaganda."

The CA story does not quote Liberto. During the internal affairs investigation, Liberto told the Flyer that he wasn't shown any photos of people whom he recalled seeing while at the jail.

"It's curious that the paper didn't try to contact Liberto," Caldwell added. "When [he] went into the jail, he didn't have these problems. When he came out, he did."

Chief Deputy Don Wright had not returned phone calls at press time.

-- Ashley Fantz

"Stolen" Vehicle Stolen By Police

Two weeks ago Todd Pack discovered that his Chevy Blazer was no longer parked in his apartment building's lot. Fearing that it had been stolen, Pack filed a stolen vehicle report with the Memphis Police Department, only to learn that the truck had been taken by police themselves.

Now Pack must pay the Memphis Police Department approximately $250 to get his own car back. Officers told him that the truck, which had a broken driver's side window, had been towed under suspicion that it was a stolen vehicle.

"I shouldn't have to pay for anything," says Pack. "I especially don't understand why I have to pay for an impound. It's not like I was driving with expired tags. The truck had been parked in the apartment building's lot until I could get it fixed."

Mike Jerden, a service representative at the police impound lot, explained that citizens sometimes complain about vehicles and officers can tow them if the officer deems the vehicle suspicious.

Jerden says that the report completed by the officer and on file at the impound lot authorized the towing of Pack's truck because the truck had a broken driver's side window and a popped steering column. According to Jerden, this and the truck's expired out-of-state tags would be reason enough for the officer to have the truck towed. However, Pack says that the steering column was not popped and the window, which he had broken accidentally after locking himself out, was covered in plastic.

Jerden also says that unless the vehicle is actually stolen and recovered, citizens must pay a $75 towing fee and the $10 a day lot fee, even in situations like Pack's, where the "stolen" car had never been stolen. -- Rebekah Gleaves

School Board Tackles New Issues

With a proposed budget deficit of $34 million on the table, the Memphis City Schools public budget hearing lasted all of 10 minutes. And then a discussion of district consolidation, student athletics, required remediation for competency, and a consent agenda took over three hours.

Only one community member at the sparsely attended hearing posed a question. The same Memphis City Schools parent also made the only comment, telling board members that they could not expect people to make comments on something they do not know anything about.

The proposed operating budget shows expenditures at $678 million and expected revenues of almost $644 million. The cost of the 10 new schools opening in August -- for 155 more staff members and operational expenses -- is estimated at just over $8 million.

"We're always disappointed we don't have more individuals that come [to the budget hearings]," said Board of Education president Barbara Prescott before moving into the regular meeting agenda.

Prescott and Commissioner Michael Hooks Jr. also brought up a previously passed resolution dealing with the pending state legislation on county and "special" school district consolidation.

"I would like to research this issue collectively," said Hooks. A resolution was passed by the board in 1998 that asked the superintendent's staff to study consolidation but was never conducted or presented to the board.

"Rather than take a stand, we would like for the board to receive a study," said Prescott, "so we can be prepared to take a stand."

"It would solve some of our funding issues," said Prescott. "We always seem to be in competition with the county schools." It would also create a district of more than 150,000 students, and size seems to be a concern already.

During a discussion about alerting student athletes to NCAA eligibility regulations, Prescott said that some of the schools were already doing an adequate job.

"In a district this large, we have difficulty enforcing some of these things we struggle with." -- Mary Cashiola

PHOTO BY CHRIS Przybyszewski

A yellow sign tells drivers the precise height of the railroad span that bridges Nettle-ton downtown. Here's what happened last week when a truck was a few inches too tall.

Commercial Appeal Changes Size, Format

Noticeably absent Sunday in a Commercial Appeal story about the daily decreasing the size of its pages was a disclosure about the potential millions of dollars in paper costs the newspaper stands to save after the switch.

The story, penned by the paper's editor and president Angus McEachran, mentioned several other benefits the smaller paper size will yield, such "less clutter" and being easier to read in cramped spaces. But the paper failed to mention that in reducing the size of the printed page, the Commercial Appeal will be reducing its operating expenses and possibly reducing its news hole -- the amount of space available for news stories.

When there's less paper space, stories must be cut or shortened. And when papers elsewhere have used smaller print to keep from reducing the number of stories, as the CA's new design does, some readers have gotten upset.

In his column, McEachran maintains that by using a new, smaller, typeface the paper will be able to reduce the size of the paper without cutting into the number of stories. He goes on to write that the "letters will be clearer and appear bigger although their computer-assisted design actually makes each word more compact."

McEachran did not respond to the Flyer's request for comment.

The Commercial Appeal is not the first newspaper to adopt the "smaller is better" logic. Papers nationwide, including USA Today, The L.A. Times, and The Washington Post have already made the switch. Major newspaper publishers have discovered that by going from 54 to 50 inches they can save a bundle on the cost of newsprint. And with the cost of newsprint currently on the rise, many papers have succumbed to temptation and cut back on paper usage. The Boston Globe, which recently reduced its paper size, expects to save about $4 million this year. News industry experts estimate that newsprint can constitute as much as 60 percent of a paper's total costs, so the Memphis paper's profitability could improve significantly.

Nationwide, page sizes aren't the only newsroom casualities. At many of the other shrinking papers the editorial staff has also been cut. At The Asbury Park Press, the second largest paper in New Jersey, newsroom staff has dropped from 240 to about 180 since 1997. And The Akron Beacon Journal announced earlier this month that it will lay off some 60 employees in order to meet financial goals set by Knight Ridder, its parent company.

According to sources at The Commercial Appeal, the paper has a hiring freeze on new reporters and positions left empty after the departures of Sara Derks, Bobby Hall, and Larry Rea. Warren Funk, the Commercial Appeal's director of human resources, did not respond to calls from the Flyer, nor did Deputy Managing Editor Otis Sanford.

It's possible the Commercial Appeal is feeling pressure from its parent company, Scripps Howard, to help maintain the company's impressive profit margin of nearly 30 percent in its newspaper division. As the second largest paper in the Scripps chain, the Memphis paper would seem to be in a position to greatly impact profit margins. But the newspaper division is the slowest growing of the Scripps ventures. (The cable channels Home and Garden Television, the Food Network, and Do it Yourself are more aggressive properties).

Whether or not the CA will have less news when pages are reduced a couple of inches remains to be seen. And the new size may be indeed be easier to handle in cramped spaces and beneficial to trees. But other beneficiaries will no doubt include Scripps Howard and its stockholders.

-- Rebekah Gleaves

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