NEW ORLEANS: Residents say ‘Fix the levees’

Nearly two years and several billion dollars later, residents and former residents of the Crescent City are still not convinced that the levees are safe — and with good reason.

Rallying around a campaign initiated by Stanford Rosenthal, a 16-year-old high school student and his mother Sandy, over 7,000 New Orleanians have volunteered to circulate a petition to Congress demanding an “8/29 Commission” (Hurricane Katrina struck on 8/29/05) to investigate the levees and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The goal is to gather 50,000 signatures to force the new Congress to establish an independent panel, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to determine why the levees broke, how to fix them and how to guarantee the safety of 1.5 million residents of greater New Orleans.

“Clearly a fresh analysis is needed to assure that critical vulnerabilities in the levee system are addressed and all possible opportunities for improvement are considered,” said Rosenthal.

His group,, met with Louisiana’s Sen. Mary Landrieu, who has offered her support, as have Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and David Vitter (R-La.). At their first meeting of the year, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to back the initiative. The incoming chairman of the House Committee for Government Reform, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said it was at the top of his list.

DURHAM, N.C.: Trial of lacrosse players moves forward

Last March, an African American student at North Carolina Central University, a single mother of three, accused several white members of the Duke University lacrosse team of rape. Since then, three players have been charged with felonies. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Feb. 5.

But at Dec. 15 hearing, Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong said he told the director of a private DNA testing lab to sequester evidence. Leaks to the press said the tests revealed that the suspects’ DNA was not present. Nifong subsequently dropped the first-degree rape charges. The charges of kidnapping and sexual offense still stand, however.

Nifong has come under sharp criticism from the North Carolina Bar Association and the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys for his handling of the case, but he stands by his actions.

Meantime, the president of Duke, Richard Brodhead, allowed one of the indicted lacrosse players, David Evans, to graduate last May and permitted the other two players, Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, to return to Duke “in good standing.” They had been suspended.

North Carolina Central law professor Irving Joyner, who will monitor the proceedings for the state NAACP, said that under Nifong the prosecution “has tightened up its case” against the three players.

Supporters of the indicted students, who want all charges dropped, launched a virulent racist attack against the local African American newspaper, The Wilmington Journal, after the paper ran an editorial calling for due process.

Durham Mayor William Bell, who is African American, is concerned that the defense wants a change of venue. “I don’t have any question a fair trial can be held in Durham,” he said. The mayor is standing behind the police department’s investigation, which resulted in the charges and grand jury indictments.

TRENTON, N.J.: Panel calls for end to death penalty

In a 127-page report compiled after a yearlong investigation, a 13-member blue ribbon panel released its report calling on the New Jersey Legislature to abolish the death penalty. There was only one dissenting vote. It was cast by former state Sen. John Russo, who introduced the death penalty law in 1982. No one has been executed in the state since 1963.

Nationally, as of October 2006, there were 3,344 people on death row. California has the most, followed by Florida and Texas.

The death penalty, according to the panel’s report, “is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency, serves no penological purpose such as deterrence or retribution and is not worth the risk of an irreversible mistake.”

Gov. Jon Corzine and Democratic state lawmakers support the panel’s findings and predict that New Jersey will become the first state to take the death penalty off the books, recommending life without parole instead.

National Clips are compiled by Denise Winebrenner Edwards (dwinebr696 @