Perfect palindrome

Happy 11/11/11.

It’s a perfect palindrome day.

And also a day to honor all those who served in uniform. 

Read my story about this special date on CNN:

Joy and Death

Two stories I have covered in the past came to resolutiontoday. Both involved international campaigns that urged freedom for whatsupporters called unjust imprisonment.
One ended in decided joy; the other the opposite.
The first was the reunion on an Omani tarmac of two youngAmerican men held in Tehran’s Evil prison for more than two years. Iranianauthorities finally released Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. They ran down thesteps of the jet that ferried them to freedom and into the arms of loved ones.
Among those anxiously waiting was Sarah Shourd, alsoarrested with Fattal and Bauer for crossing into Iranian territory when theywere hiking in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. Shourd, released on bail a yearago, is engaged to be married to Bauer.
She had not been able to savor her own freedom fully untilthis day. I know that from what she said about her ordeal on CNN last year.
Much closer to home, another drama unfolded. Authorities inmy home state of Georgia put to death by lethal injection Troy Davis, who hadbeen on death row for two decades for murdering an off-duty police officer,Mark MacPhail, in Savannah.
I first began writing about about the Davis case when it came beforethe clemency board three years ago. I spent time with his sister MartinaCorreia, who has fought from the very beginning for her brother’s release.Davis and his family have always argued that he was innocent and set up by thepolice to take the fall for MacPhail’s killing.
Later, I reported a deeper story with my colleague SonjiJacobs about the murder. After reading hundreds of pages oftrial transcripts and police records, I did not know what to think except thatthere was enough doubt in the case that a man’s life ought naught to be takenwithout further exam.
Here is part of that story that appeared in the AtlantaJournal-Constitution in November, 2007:
The police had nothing.

No fingerprints, tire tracks or murder weapon.The bullets extracted from MacPhail and empty shell casings found on the ground— all from a .38-caliber pistol — provided the only physical evidence.

Soon, though, police would tie the shooting ofMichael Cooper at the pool party, where Davis and Collins had been earlier thatnight, to the killing of MacPhail. The weapon in both, they said, was a.38-caliber gun.

A cop was dead and “there was a lot ofpressure to get somebody, ” recalls Louis Tyson, who was on the Savannahpolice force and knew the Davis family.

Detectives began to interview people in theBurger King drive-through lane, in the parking lot by the bus station, acrossOglethorpe Street at the Thunderbird Inn.

Their accounts of what happened varied. But onedetail was critical: Witnesses agreed that one of the men gathered around Youngwore a white shirt; the other, yellow. And it was the man in white, they said,who first struck Young with a handgun, then shot MacPhail.

At 7:55 p.m. that day, police got a break. Coles,accompanied by his lawyer, walked into the Criminal Investigation Bureau officein Savannah. Coles told police that he saw Davis with a .38-caliber gun at thepool hall and that he had used it to hit Young on the head.

Immediately, police focused their investigationon Davis. They added a color Polaroid of him to a photo lineup. In the next fewdays, they tracked down Davis’ family and friends and searched the homes of hismother and sister.

News of the manhunt appeared on television and innewspaper articles. Davis’ trial attorneys would describe it as the “mostintensive investigation probably done in the history of this county.”

They would also argue that police had fallen forColes’ statements “hook, line and sinker.”
And another excerpt:
On Aug. 19, 1991, exactly two years afterMacPhail’s murder in a downtown Burger King parking lot, Davis went on trial atthe Chatham County courthouse.

The prosecution put on the stand nine witnesseswhose testimony, they said, proved beyond a doubt that Davis was the killer. 

Fairly consistently, witnesses said a man wearing a white T-shirtpistol-whipped a homeless man, Larry Young, and then shot MacPhail beforefleeing the scene.

Perhaps most damning was the testimony of Young’sgirlfriend, Harriet Murray. She said a man wearing a white T-shirt pointed hisgun at MacPhail and shot him before the police officer could pull his gun outof his holster. MacPhail was down on the ground when the man shot him two orthree more times, Murray testified.

She pointed in court to Davis, identifying him asthe person wearing the white shirt that night. “He had a little smile onhis face, a little smirky-like smile, ” she said.

Dorothy Ferrell, who was across the street fromthe Burger King, identified Davis in court and said: “I’m real sure,positive sure, that that is him, and you know, it’s not a mistakenidentity.”

Antoine Williams, who had just arrived to workthe graveyard shift at the restaurant, also identified Davis as the shooter.Davis’ neighbor Jeffrey Sapp testified that Davis confessed to the killing justhours after MacPhail died.

When Coles took the stand, he admitted arguingwith Young but said Davis hit the homeless man. He said he had already turnedaround to run from the parking lot when MacPhail was shot.

Questioned about why he sought out lawyer JohnCalhoun the day of the murder, Coles told the jury he had worked for Calhoun”off and on.”
The attorney had accompanied Coles to the policestation, where he told officers that he saw Davis with a .38-caliber gun justbefore the murder.

“Why didn’t you just go straight to thepolice?” asked defense attorney Robert Falligant.

“I don’t know, ” Coles said.”That’s what I chose to do.”

What Coles had not told police was that he, too,owned a .38-caliber gun. He later would admit it and say he had stashed the gunin some bushes before going to the Burger King. Coles had been convicted of carryinga concealed weapon and could not legally carry a gun.

During the trial — and since — Davis’ variousattorneys have repeatedly asked why Coles and another man at the scene, Daryl”D.D.” Collins, weren’t ever considered suspects by police. Why wasn’tColes’ house searched after they learned he was carrying a gun that night —the same type as the murder weapon.

Police never recovered a murder weapon — orColes’ gun or the one he said Davis owned. 

An expert on ballistics, however,testified that shell casings found near MacPhail’s body matched those found inthe subdivision where another man, Michael Cooper, had been shot earlier thatnight at a pool party. Davis was linked to both locations.
And later in the story:
Davis was convicted and sentenced to die. But ashe aged on Death Row, witnesses changed their stories:

Murray said in a statement signed in 2002 that itwas the man following Young who hit him and shot MacPhail.

Murray said: “The man following Larrystarted digging in his pants for a gun and slapped Larry in the side of theface with it . . . I saw the man who was arguing with Larry . . . and whoslapped Larry shoot the police officer.” Coles had testified that he wasthe person following and arguing with Young.

In 2000, Ferrell signed an affidavit saying thatshe was on parole in 1989 and feared she would be locked up again if she didn’ttell police what they wanted to hear. “I don’t know which of the guys didthe shooting because I didn’t see that part, ” she said in her statement.

In his affidavit, Williams said: “I wastotally unsure whether [Davis] was the person who shot the officer.” AndSapp said: “I told them Troy confessed to me. None of it was true.”

Three others — Anthony Hargrove, Shirley Rileyand Darold Taylor — stepped forward after the trial and said Coles confessedto killing MacPhail. Hargrove said Coles admitted letting a man named Troy takethe fall.
MacPhail’s family waited many years to see theman convicted of killing him brought to justice. They have lived with the agonyof a case that has been left hanging year after year, their loss relived everytime a legal proceeding brought Mark MacPhail’s name back into the headlines.
I cannot imagine that pain.
On the other hand, thousands of people worldwidehad doubts about Davis’ guilt. Did he pull the trigger on that hot Savannahnight? Or was it someone else? Perhaps we will never know the answer withabsolute certainty.
But we will never be able to bring Davis back tolife. He died from a lethal injection at 11:08 p.m. Wednesday.


My friend Anita died last night.

The news hit me today in the CNN newsroom like the blast of a bomb. I had fully intended to go visit her after my return to Atlanta this week. Now, I will never see her again.I will never hear her infectious laugh again. It made my husband Kevin’s bursting laugh seem demure.

 I probably never would have had the journalism career I have if it had not been for Anita. My resume landed on her desk somehow, and she wanted to hire me on the national copy desk. I will be forever grateful to her for having faith in me.

 Anita fought cancer for many years. Thursday night, she lost the battle. She left behind a beautiful daughter, Kc, who will now have to navigate life without the nurturing of her mother.

 Tomorrow, I journey to San Francisco, to be with another strong woman in my life — my aunt, my father’s little sister. I grew up calling her Phoolpishi, which means aunt of the flowers, her bloom faded with years of physical suffering.

Like with Anita, her cancer is back with a vengeance. Like Anita, she is strong. A fighter like I could never be.

She has endured and survived and is still with hope.I did not get a chance to see Anita again. Not on this earth anyway. But I will see my Phoolpishi tomorrow. And when I do, I will hear Anita’s laugh surround me, fill me with warmth like an old English hearth on a bone-chilling day.

Heading West: Being and nothingness

I have traveled to many lands but nowhere have I seen the landscape change as rapidly or as often as it did on our road trip through Wyoming.

I see the Tetons in the rear view now, white peaks contrasting against blue sky, as the highway winds downward into flatter lands formed of earth as red as Georgia clay. We drive into DuBois, a true cowboy town where the main road is dotted with a few eateries and shops and an old sign that says “Homestead.” We poke our heads into an antique shop filled with old spurs, bits and colorized photographs. We eat burgers at the Cowboy Cafe. They are big enough to fill the belly of any hungry ranch hand.

We keep driving, not knowing where we will sleep tonight. Through the Wind River Reservation, past cows and even elk, and into Lander, where a mean wind whips through a main street that feels empty. This is an old mining town. It was the westward terminus of the “Cowboy Line” of the Chicago and North Western Railway. This is “where rails end and trails begin.”

I close my eyes and try to imagine this place as it was a century ago.

There are plenty of dude ranches nearby. I am told that’s a source for tourist dollars these days.

We keep driving. Into an abyss of nothingness. Nothing we can see but sagebrush and rolling hills in the distant. There are stretches of highway where we do not see any trailers, ranches, animals. No signs of life anywhere.

It’s a strange feeling for me. I would not want to be alone here, I think.

It takes several hours to reach Rawlins. We think about staying there but keep moving. I can’t stand the melancholy of a another town past its prime hanging heavy on every corner.

We turn right onto Highway 287, which will take us back into Colorado. It is evening when we reach Fort Collins. Downtown is bustling in this college town. People are spilling out of cafes and restaurants. I hear one man discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s brand of existentialism.

We had come from nothingness into being. Or was it the other way around?

Heading West: Grand Tetons

We drive out of Yellowstone through the south gate. For a few moments, the drive seems, well, boring compared to the visual feast that was before us all day long. But then, the highway bends and offers a glimpse of the peaks that form the Grand Tetons. Jagged mountains that rise a mile high from the ground, like gothic cathedrals reaching skyward.

We check into our cabin — The Willow — at Dornan’s Spur Ranch in Moose, Wyoming. My colleague, John Branch at CNN’s National Desk, recommended we stay there. He worked there once after he fell in love with the Tetons and could not bear to leave. The cabins are rustic but modern. And the best thing is the vast wine shop that rivals any in Atlanta.

Here’s what Dornan’s says about its wine:

“We know what you’re thinking… how did a family of hardscrabble pioneer homesteaders end up operating one of the finest wine shops in the Rocky Mountains?

Like most things around here, the story starts with Granddad (JP Dornan), and his mother(Evelyn). While she was the “official” homesteader, she chose to spend much of her time in sunny California, leaving her son to “prove up” on the property. While traveling back and forth, JP befriended many of the wine families in California, who were then (1930s and 1940s) just getting their businesses started. Their families and our families have remained close over the decades, and enjoying fine wines has become a Dornan family tradition.”

I am in heaven as I buy a bottle of Malbec, get comfortable in the restaurant and watch the sun set behind the Tetons.

The next morning, we begin the day early with a hike at Taggert Lake. Half the trail is still covered in snow. There are places where snow shoes might have been useful. We see a coyote but no bears.

We have lunch at the beautiful Jenny lake Lodge, where everything is just right. Even the butter is artfully carved in the form of a moose.

Jenny Lake is perhaps the most scenic place at the Tetons. Unlike the much smaller Taggert, Jenny is not frozen. The waters shimmer under the shadows of the towering peaks.

Another hike in the afternoon and then the drive back to the lodge. We decide to stop in and see the famed Jackson Hole ski village. On the way, we spot a moose off the highway, camouflaged perfectly in a boggy forested field.

For dinner we head into Jackson for an elegant meal at the Snake River Lodge. They have things like wild boar and elk medallions on the menu. Kevin orders the buffalo pot roast. I try a pork shank cooked in duck confit. How utterly decadent.

Our wiatress, Brandy Borts, says she came to Jackson 15 years ago and never left. My friend, John, will probably understand why, I think. I think it’s beautiful here but I am too much a lover of urban jungles to make a go of it in Wyoming.

Brandy says she loves to ski, can’t get enough of the landscape. So she works hard as a waitress so that she can stay.

Alas, we cannot stay. We have to make our way back to Denver soon.

Wild West: first stop

From Denver airport, we drive to Steamboat Springs — a place that is as pretty as its name sounds. The slopes are closed for the summer but plenty of people are still around. As is the snow atop the mountains. On this day, everyone is excited about the sun. It’s the first day in a while that the wet stuff has stopped, the clouds have vanished. A magnificent statue of an elk graces a public park by the river.

At Chocolate Soup, Chelsea serves us a savory scone and strawberry rhubarb waffles. I can tell this vacation will be filled with many lazy afternoons and heaping plates of delicious food. Never tasted a waffle with rhubarb before. It made me think of the pies at Yoder’s in Sarasota. Only better.

From the picturesque Colorado ski resort, we drive northeast, through more rugged country. Just before the Wyoming state line, we come across the Hoopla shop in Walden — elevation, 8,100 feet. Amy Symonds grew up here. Her father was a caretaker of a flourspar mine. That’s the stuff they make fluoride out of. And very pretty pendants.

Her store is in the middle of a broken town. Nothing but a saloon, a barber shop and a host of trailers here. The opposite of Steamboat, I think.

Tom Waits is on the CD player. Symonds is wearing a giant fur hat on her head and stands behind the counter to greet her customers, all two of us. She sells all sorts of pelts — mink, ermin, skunk. She sells hat boxes, vintage hoop skirts and handbags, jewelry, furniture and a bunch of other assorted stuff. Her shop was featured in a western magazine. She’s happy about that. She sells me an old silver ring with a heap of copper on it. Looks like someone forgot to mold it into a more shapely sight.

We meander down the road, catch sight of a moose. I’d never seen a real live one before. We stop at Woods Landing, more out of curiosity than thirst, and sit at the bar with a folks who watch Fox News and hate CNN. On weekends, the dance hall is filled here with wranglers, ranchers and pretty girls. Bartender Mary Albright serves me an ice-cold Corona and tells me to never mind all those anti-CNN sentiments. She watches Anderson Cooper every night, she says. Tapes it when she can’t watch it live. She was born in Germany, grew up in Nebraska and worked at Home Depot in Denver before she came to Woods Landing four years ago. Now, she makes a mean vodka tonic and watches people twirl on the century-plus-old floor.

After a refreshing drink, we are off on a lonely highway, through Laramie, the town that became notorious for the torture and murder of Matt Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Must be tough to live in a town that’s become synonymous with something that evil.

The drizzle gets heavier in Laramie. The skies are gray. It’s the end of May but feels more like mid-winter in Atlanta. We hit the highway to Cheyenne, the state capital. My colleague Matt Smith lived here once and suggested we stay at the Plains Hotel, a no-frills lodging in a beautiful old building. Matt said we ought to eat at The Albany, and so we did. The place used to be brothel, named after the Union Pacific trains from Albany, New York. They carried troops going off to fight in World War II who had some fun on their stop in Cheyenne.

There was a lot of gambling and prostitution here until the interstates shut all that down, says owner Gus Kallas. I stare at a photograph on the wall of the Thomas Heaney saloon taken in 1888. I notice one of the workers behind the bar. He is a black man.

Get well, my friend

Valerie Boyd is one of the strongest women I know. Fiercely independent, passionate in her defending her views. Certainly, an inspiration to me, ever since I met her years ago at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I admired her talent, her tremendous writing skills, her astuteness as an editor. I especially felt a bond with her at a time when there were not too many women of color working in mainstream newsrooms.

So when I went to teach my magazine writing class at UGA (a job for which Val recommended me) more than two weeks ago and found out she had been hospitalized with pneumonia, I grew worried. After I received a message from her partner, Veta, I understood how serious Valerie’s situation was. She was in the intensive care unit, sedated, intubated, on a ventilator.

For days, the update on Val’s status sounded like this: She is getting better but she is still on the ventilator.

I thought of my own mother, who had been on a ventilator for the last three weeks of her life. When she died, I saw her chest still heaving on that machine and for a moment, believed that the heart monitor was wrong. How could she be breathing still when the monitor indicated her heart had stopped? I learned later that she had been kept on the ventilator until her doctor could order it to be shut off. It was one of the most horrifying moments of my life and an image that stays with me always.

I imagined Valerie, at DeKalb Medical Center, gasping for air, on that ventilator.

It was unnatural. She was too young to die like this. She has so much more to give to the world.

The strong-willed woman that she is, Valerie fought pneumonia like a soldier in battle. She wasn’t going to succumb to something that robbed her of her independence.

She was deemed well enough to breathe without the machine a few days ago and moved into a rehab part of the hospital Monday.

When I went to see her Tuesday evening, she told me she had thought much about death. It was not in the natural order of things for her elderly father to plan her funeral. It was she who should be doing that for him.

She told me of her dreams in her frail state. How she had seen my parents as children again; that they were with me once again on this earth. And of all children of color, who fight every day for survival.

Valerie’s near-death experience has made her cherish more all of life’s beautiful things — the sunlight and the birds, a slice of fresh pineapple (yes, she was craving slushy fruit), walking her dog. How strange she had felt that someone had to help her to the commode or watch her take a bath for fear she would fall.

I suppose most everyone who skirts death has similar thoughts. But Valerie articulated them from her hospital bed with the clarity and haunting beauty of her language that is familiar to all who have read her work, especially her biography of literary giant Zora Neale Hurston. In the drabness of hospital hues and in a strained voice that sounded like a 90-year-old chain smoking man’s (we joked), she talked of her verve for life.

Yesterday, it was Valerie who was wrapped in rainbows.

I left her room at dinner time, walked back through the halls of a chaotic hospital where suffering knows no end. And yet, a calm settled on me and once again, I knew I was better for having seen my friend. And thankful that there would be many more meetings to come.

Tet Kale

Michel Martelly, bad-boy musician, is Haiti’s next president, according to preliminary results released Monday.

He called himself an outsider to Haiti’s corrupt political machine and when I met him at his home in December (see photo), he told me about how he would do things differently than all his predecessors — dictators and leftist priests alike. Sitting in the entertainment room of his Peguyville house, I thought: Wow. How can a musician lead Haiti out of all its woes? Earthquake, cholera, poverty, corruption, more poverty, more corruption.

But he laid out a plan that began like this: “Don’t hand Haitians money. They don’t know how to handle it. I am Haitian. o don’t even hand me money. Just come and rebuild for us.”

I thought him earnest.

Out on the streets of Port-au-Prince, they were chanting “Tet Kale!” It means bald head, as in Martelly’s. We will see now if the people will still be calling his name as he takes charge in Haiti.

His win made me want to get on a plane back to Haiti. He told me, after all, that he would take me around Port-au-Prince himself, if he were elected. I might just have to hold him to that promise.

Is it a revolution?

I have not posted anything in a while — I’ve been drowning at work with the Egypt story.

But today, it happened. The unthinkable, really. I never thought that sheer people power would bring own Hosni Mubarak. But he was gone, as abruptly an surprisingly as he ascended to power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

And now, the world waits and watches as Egypt moves on. After euphoria, after celebration, what will happen? Mubarak is gone but has there really been a regime change? Or will the military rule now with an equally iron hand?

It is too early, I think, to say that Egyptians succeeded in their revolution, which incidentally coincided with the 32nd anniversary of the fall of the shah of Iran. I can still remember the joy in the hearts of all of my Iranian friends and fellow students at Florida State University in 1979. They did not know then that their beloved homeland would soon become a repressive state, an Islamic republic.

So, I will keep writing the main Egypt story for and hold my breath to see whether it turns out to be as momentous as everyone said it would be today.