Another senseless, cowardly act of violence occurred last night said Police Chief Michael Harrison as he described the city’s most recent shooting in Gentilly. With 23 New Orleanians shot just since last Saturday, it’s easy to see why New Orleans has the highest shooting rate in America — over 300 already this year.
Our high crime rate might also explain why so many individuals spend time at the Orleans Justice Center. We have more crimes being committed than the national average so we may need more beds than the national average.
The crime rate is surely a contributing factor in the continuing contentious City Council debate on increasing the number of beds – albeit for mental health and other special needs prisoners – but more beds none the less.
Providing safe, secure and sanitary conditions for all prisons is at the heart of the jail’s 2013 federal consent decree. Federal judges announced yesterday that they are pleased with the general progress Sheriff Marlin Gusman and his team are making. Judges and Gusman admit many more improvements are still needed including better mental health/special needs facilities and services.
Statistics show that one in three New Orleans inmates take medication for mental health issues. In fact, mental health issues are the reason many find themselves behind bars or develop more acute mental health issues while incarcerated. No one believes The Orleans Justice Center is the optimal venue to house the mentally ill. Leaving them on the streets to commit more crimes is not a viable option either.
Gusman is advocating a new 89 bed building that will house 77 men and 12 women and provide 39,000 square feet of clinic, infirmary and administrative space. Numerous opponents including the Vera Institute would prefer Gusman reconfigure space in the existing facility.
One of the opponents’ most passionate spokesperson is Norris Henderson, a convicted killer himself who spent almost 30 years behind bars. Henderson is the leader of several organizations including Safe Streets Strong Communities, the Voice of the Ex-Offender, and the New Orleans Prison Reform Coalition.
While the Norris Henderson many New Orleanians know appears to be a passionate advocate, Henderson has a dark side. Speaking from the microphone at the last City Council meeting, Henderson publicly threatened to defeat any councilmember who supports additional beds at the Orleans Justice Center.
Henderson proudly boasted that he had amassed a $500,000 fund that could be used to un-elect those who dare oppose him. Listeners quickly realized that Henderson was focusing his attack on Council President Jason Williams, a very popular African-American city-wide elected official who just happens to be a highly regarded criminal defense attorney, and Councilmember James Gray.
While it appears that the majority of City Council members may be inclined to support Gusman’s request, the debate on how to best care for prisoners with mental health and other special needs is far from over.
Henderson also used the opportunity to praise retired Criminal Court Judge Calvin Johnson, now the city’s criminal justice czar, who found the legal loophole which set Henderson free from a life sentence for the murder of teenager Betty Jean Joseph in 1974.
Henderson had been tried and found guilty twice in the Betty Jean Joseph case – once by a jury of his peers and once by Judge Johnson. Henderson remained in prison until Johnson gave him the get-out-of-jail card.
To better understand Norris Henderson’s life, I read more than 50 pages of police reports. The report’s grisly details so overwhelmed me, I couldn’t sleep that night. I also gained new respect for how hard detectives must work to bring criminals to justice.
Betty Jean Joseph was a teenager living in Central City when her brother Henry Joseph, 21, was gunned down on an October night in 1973, according to the report on Henry Joseph’s killing. Betty Jean became the prosecution’s star witness in this murder when she identified Norris Henderson and another man as the killers.
Although wanted by the police in connection with the Henry Joseph killing, Henderson could not be found for more than a year. Shortly after 8 a.m. on July 24, 1974, a 1966 burgundy Chevrolet Chevelle approached Betty Jean while she was riding her bicycle near Cohen Sr. High School where she was a student. According to the police report, two men jumped out — later identified as Norris Henderson and his brother Clarence Henderson — and began beating Betty Jean. After knocking her to the ground, Henderson brothers shot her in the left breast, the upper shoulder, the left buttock, and the lower abdomen and left her lying in a pool of blood in front of 1725 Delachaise Street, witnesses told investigators, according to the report in her killing.
Before Betty Jean died on the operating table at Charity Hospital, she was able to tell a Cohen High School official, NOPD Detective Wayne Cooper and others that Norris Henderson was one of her killers the report states. Clarence Henderson and Norris Henderson were found guilty, but Clarence Henderson is still serving a mandatory life sentence in Angola and Norris Henderson is a local rock star in the prison-reform movement.
I strongly believe in redemption. But redemption is only appropriate for those who admit their mistakes and try to make it right – or at least apologize – to their victims. To the contrary, in the murder of Betty Jean Joseph, Henderson says on YouTube that he was wrongly incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.
Those who are voices and champions for justice in our community might want to reconsider their support of Norris Henderson until he is ready to “fess up” to his crimes and seek real redemption. A new YouTube video would be a good start.
As long as there are people on our streets who think and act like the men who killed the Joseph siblings, New Orleans’ crime will continue to remain out of control.
HAVE WE BECOME APATHETIC TO CRIME OR ADJUSTED TO VIOLENCE?
As crime – especially murders – is escalating out of control this summer with no slowdown to be expected any time soon, have New Orleanians become apathetic or just adjusted to the violence in an effort to move on with their lives?
New Orleans is lucky that we have not been hit with the horrible atrocities which have occurred in many American cities and around the world. Our local news is filled every day with so many murders, carjacking, and assaults that it is hard to distinguish each individual incident. Our collective memory fades over time.
For families, friends, and neighbors of the numerous victims as well as the actual witnesses to the crimes, those memories are both searing and numbing. Some experts believe that perpetrators commit atrocities to stoke fear. Although citizens are on edge, as attacks increase there could be less public outcry rather than more.
Since 9/11, an undercurrent of fear has persisted in America. Coupled with the prevalence of social media and our 24/7 news cycle, smart phones with Facebook feeds and Google alerts, our lives are often interrupted by videos and tweets of crimes we’d rather not know about.
It is an inescapable fact that no New Orleans neighborhood is truly safe. Let us not become so desensitized that we fail to demand all our elected official better address this problem.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and past work for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Her current clients include District B City Council candidate Seth Bloom.