Case of the Great Red Neck Railroad

passenger trains at New Orleans

Trains in New Orleans

The lady who came once a week to clean my law office and give me advice on health care and what to eat referred Winona Patterson to me. Mrs. Patterson was a frail, petite black lady with abundant wrinkles on her face and hands which made her look older than forty-two. She was dressed in a neat print dress and wore her Sunday-Go-To-Meeting little white hat that appeared to float above her beehive of graying hair. Winona also worked “day jobs” cleaning houses, which was now her sole source of income. She brought with her a family friend and neighbor, Elmer Ramsey.

Elmer was a tall, muscular black man with graying hair and mustache. His hands were the size of an outfielder’s glove and were attached to massive arms that looked like limbs of a live oak tree. He wore an open collared, blue cotton work shirt and stiff starched, faded levis. In the waiting room, he wore an old New Orleans Pelicans baseball cap which he promptly removed upon entering my office. I hadn’t seen one of those caps in years. Elmer explained that, after serving three years in the army during World War II, he had been a trainer for the New Orleans minor league baseball team called the Pelicans. Unlike most black soldiers of that era, he had seen combat in North Africa, been decorated and had risen to the rank of sergeant. After the Pelicans he worked in the construction industry, rising to the position of supervisor at the Jefferson Concrete Company, which was located near his house.

WWII Soldier

WWII Soldier

Winona told me her husband of eleven years, Fred, had been run over by a train and killed. She said his friend Elmer had witnessed the event and could fill in the details. I agreed to take the case and we entered the standard contingency fee agreement, but I took only 20% instead of the customary 33 1/3 because Winona had been left with three kids and only the house cleaning jobs to support the family. She seemed slightly worse off financially than I.
The Pattersons and Ramseys lived across the tracks in a depressed part of Jefferson Parish (County) called Shrewsberry, pronounced Shoozberry by the local black folk who stayed there. In those days in that neighborhood, folks “stayed” somewhere, they didn’t “live” there.  Their friend Elmer stayed near by. Elmer supervised Fred’s work at the cement plant. All the folks in Shoozberry were of humble means but shared their meager resources and looked out for one another. There were several barrooms in Shoozberry, some adjacent to the railroad tracks.

2178266871_de244bce95_oFred and Elmer were particularly fond of the Dew Drop Inn which lay between their work and home. It was friendly and dark and inhabited by their neighbors and fellow laborers. They could play dominoes, checkers or cards or just enjoy cheap booze in many forms. An old rusty tin roof covered the building. The unfinished lap strake side boards were protected from the elements by large signs advertising cigarettes, beer and wine of every variety.  The Dew Drop was located next to, if not actually on, a railroad company right of way. The tracks gave several companies access to New Orleans. The tracks also gave Fred and Elmer a reliable path home at night when they had consumed a bit too much Mad Dog wine, which happened fairly frequently. Mad Dog was the poor man’s balm from the daily drudgery of life and just went by the initials M.D. It was “fortified” with about 30% alcohol, which got the desired effect cheaply.

According to Elmer, the tragedy occurred on a cold November night. He and Fred “had a few too many” at the Dew Drop. Fred left first. Elmer followed a few minutes later and walked behind a Great Red Neck train that came to a sudden stop about a quarter mile in front of him. This sudden stopping of the train became an important fact in the case. Why did the train suddenly stop?  As Elmer continued down the middle of the tracks toward the caboose of the train, he came upon a horrible scene that stunned him into immediate sobriety. There were bits and pieces of his friend, Fred, between and on both sides of the track. Latter evidence suggests that the Mad Dog had induced an irresistible urge to sleep which Fred accommodated by reposing on the tracks.

221166pvThe scene was gruesome. A sadistic young photographer employed by the Jefferson parish coroner’s office documented the horrible site in great detail with two dozen 8×10 glossy, black and white photos. They graphically depicted the violent nature of the death, and Fred’s dismembered body on the tracks.

My obligation as an attorney was to first prove that it was The Great Red Neck train that ran over and killed Fred. Next, I had to prove that despite the fact that Fred had contributed to his own death by falling asleep on the tracks, the train engineer had the “last clear chance” to avoid the accident. The “last clear chance “doctrine was well established law (though not well liked by many) in Louisiana at the time. The doctrine goes something like this. If I put myself in danger, i.e. by walking in front of a moving car, I am contributorly negligent and should be barred from recovering any damages. But “last clear chance “says that that even if I put myself in danger, the driver of the car has an obligation to avoid hitting me if he could see me and stop his car. I had to show the train engineer could have, should have, seen Fred and and stopped his train in time to avoid running over him.

Railroad companies were notorious about making plaintiffs go to trial in all cases and prove every element of the case, even the very obvious. They had lawyers advising their lawyers. There was always house counsel but they always had local counsel on retainer just to make sure they got a fair deal in any particular jurisdiction.

McFall, Pseudo, Sophisticate, Nasty and Grumpy were local counsel in New Orleans representing Great Red Neck Railroad. Their chief trial lawyer was a supremely self- assured well-bred uptown New Orleanian by the name of Larry McFall  IV. We just called ourselves trial lawyers in those days. Later we would become litigators. This was about the same time our LLB degree became a Juris Doctor degree–if you sent your $25 to the bar association for the upgrade you could hang on your wall. Since Larry was the IV it meant he had three other ancestors who were equally proud of this name. Larry was urbane and sophisticated in a New Orleans sort of way. He was in his mid forties and about five ten but trim and athletic. He was fastidious and an impeccable dresser.  He wore Oxford weave cotton buttondown shirts, Brooks Brothers suits, and only the best shoes, all from Perlis Clothing in uptown New Orleans. His family was properly clothed by the Perlis family for at least two generations.

Like his ancestors, Larry was educated at an Ivy League Law School in the Northeast where he acquired a pseudo Bostonian accent. This was essential for membership in the Boston Club in New Orleans. Once, Larry had even been crowned King of Rex. This honor meant that his family had lots and lots of money, could trace their heritage to before the “War Between The States” and had their own personal waiter at Antoine’s Restaurant.  To be King of Rex meant you and your family occupied the top of the social heap in The City That Care Forgot.

Rex, King of Carnival

Upon return from his proper education in the northeast, Larry continued his legal tutelage at his ancestor’s firm. Over the years he became the chief retained counsel for the Great Red Neck Railroad. His firm’s office was located in a large bank building in downtown New Orleans. It was grand and traditional with thick expensive carpets, dark oak paneling, portraits of deceased members of the firm and Audubon Prints. The décor aimed to impress or intimidate depending on if you were client or an opponent in litigation.

After I filed suit, Larry called for depositions of witnesses. The most important witnesses were the engineer and Fred’s friend Elmer. Their depositions were scheduled at Larry’s office. He wanted them in his office because it made his engineer feel comfortable and he thought it would make Elmer feel uneasy. I knew Elmer would not be intimidated, no matter what the setting. Elmer was as confident and self-assured, yet humble as any black man of that era in the Deep South. I guess this was because of his unique physical attributes and life experiences in the army and with the Pelicans.  But the real reason I readily agreed to Larry’s office centered on the fact  that my modest office lacked proper space to take a deposition.

Burell Claxton was the railroad engineer. He was a huge man going about six two and weighing in at about 350 pounds. He wore a blue denim work shirt tucked into bibbed coveralls. The gold chain of his Hamilton pocket watch (the prized possession of all railroad men) traversed his enormous chest from one pocket in the bib to another pocket. A pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco peeked out of the pocket securing the bitter end of the gold chain. At sixty two, Burel had performed every duty on Great Red Neck trains since he left the farm near Valdosta, Ga., at age fourteen. At heart an honest man, but like most railroad employees of that day he was fiercely loyal to his employer. This loyalty was born, not only out of job security, but out of identifying with a powerful company and performing an exciting job.

The depositions took place in Larry’s large downtown conference room which was encircled with ceiling to floor shelves of law books, some useful but most just decorative. Eighteen high back antique leather chairs surrounded a sixteen foot long antique oak table. Expensive oriental carpets further muted the sound of this already somber chamber. These surroundings were as foreign to Burell as they were to Elmer.

Canal Street 1963

Canal Street 1963

Burell’s deposition was first. I wanted to know why the train suddenly stopped. To win the case, I had to prove this train ran over Fred. I figured Burell stopped the train because he thought he had hit someone or something. But that was not the answer. When asked why the train abruptly stopped, the big engineer explained, “The train went into big hole application”. I had never heard that expression so I pressed on. Burell explained that when the air pressure in the braking system got below a certain pressure all brakes on the train would automatically come on before the pressure got too low to operate the system. That made sense but, then why did the air brake pressure drop? Burell explained that after the train stopped, he and his fireman, looked under the train and saw that a valve handle on the air reservoir tank had been somehow partially opened, causing the reduction in pressure. When asked if he had ever had this handle come ajar in the past, Burell lied and said, no. This falsehood would come to haunt him at time of trial. By now, I was sure that poor Fred’s body hit the valve handle and caused the train to go into big hole application. I planned to prove this to a jury using a mock valve, but old Burell was insistent that this had never happened to him before.

Elmer’s deposition took place next.  We spread the two dozen black and white 8×10 glossy photos of Fred’s parts on the table. After the preliminary questions of Elmer as to his age, place of residence and relationship to the deceased Larry asked Elmer what went on at the Dew Drop Inn just before the accident. Elmer talked about drinking with Fred after work. He also explained to Larry what Mad Dog was, as this libation was not on the wine list at Antoine’s. When Larry asked “What happened next?” Elmer replied “Fred left the Dew Drop. I stayed and finished my last glass of Mad Dog. I left and started walking down the tracks when I come up on the place where the train ran over and cut Fred to pieces.” Immediately, Larry sprang into legal motion and said to the court reporter recording the deposition, “I object to the conjecture on the part of the witness that the train ran over and killed the deceased. The cause of death has yet to be established.” Elmer was bewildered by Larry’s legal jargon. He looked mournfully at the many pictures of the dismembered body of his friend and co worker spread upon the big antique oak table.

Any ordinary black man in these times and under these circumstances would have been intimidated by the well-educated, powerful Larry in the citadel of his own law offices. But Elmer was no ordinary black man who just happened to live in the Deep South during the 1950s. He had been a leader of men in combat. He had worked with, and come to personally know, the Pelicans baseball players who were the celebrities of their day in New Orleans. Strong physically and mentally, Elmer had the stoic qualities and good sense of humor that enabled black men to survive the rigors of segregation of the Deep South in those days.

In response to Larry’s ridiculous objection, Elmer, took a deep breath, gazed a long while at the mosaic of 8×10  pictures of his friend’s body parts on the railroad tracks and said.“Lawsy, lawsy, man, he sure didn’t die of pneumonia.”

Larry was furious and jumped to his feet registering another objection, to which I responded, “You got an answer to your question. It just wasn’t the one you wanted.”

Pelican Park, New Orleans

Pelican Park, New Orleans

Well as I said before, they always made you go to trial and this case was no exception. Railroad companies hated to pay because of their perceived status in the world, and just because they were cheap and reactionary. Their attorneys just liked to keep their meter running in order to keep churning out “billable hours”.

Trial commenced and a jury of six good Jefferson Parish residents were selected. The railroad company was still demanding that we prove it was their train that ran over Fred. I called Burell to the stand “under the act for cross examination,” which meant I could treat him as a hostile witness and cross examine him. The engineer explained to the jury about the train going into big hole application and that it was caused by the valve handle underneath the train coming partially open. A cardinal rule of trial lawyers is,when in trial, “don’t ask questions you don’t know the answer to.” Sometimes your gut tells you this rule should be violated. In his deposition, Burell had stated he had never had one of these valve handles come open in the past. This same answer wouldn’t help or hurt me or the defendant so I thought, “why not the question again.  I asked the question again, and low and behold, much to my surprise, Burell thought hard, wiggled in the witness chair and said the air valve handle had come open once before when he was operating a Great Red Neck train. “What caused the air valve to come open on the previous occasion?” I asked, pressing my luck a bit. Burell lowered his head even further, wiggled his massive body further into the witness chair, turned red in the face and said in an almost inaudible voice, “I ran over a pig in Alabama.”

His response was so meek the court reporter had to ask him to repeat it and he said in a stronger more resolute voice “I ran over a pig in Alabama.”

There was a slight gasp from an elderly lady juror. Larry immediately asked the judge for a short recess, which was granted without any objection from me. After another more lengthy recess, Larry returned to the courtroom to tell me he had been in telephone conference with House Counsel of the railroad and they were willing to settle with us for the amount we had offered to settle for before trial. I told him the price of poker had just gone up a bit, but after consulting with Winona and some of her relatives and friends we came to a figure that seemed fair to her. The railroad company agreed to the sum and we dismissed the jury with our thanks.

Winona’s check came in a couple of weeks. She didn’t get rich. I didn’t get rich. The truth of the matter is that in those days, in death cases, the survivors were compensated for the pain and suffering of the deceased, loss of companionship of the deceased and loss of anticipated earnings of the deceased. It was pretty obvious Fred died quickly, probably while asleep and therefore had little or no pain or suffering. How do you put a price tag on companionship? Fred was an unskilled laborer and didn’t have prospects for making much money for the remainder of his life.

Winona was not frivolous with her settlement. She bought a little shotgun house in “Shoozberry” and the last I heard all her kids had graduated from high school. One went on to a junior college. Her friend who kept me healthy and my office clean would tell me, as the years went by, that Winona was still doing day work to keep body and soul together and was quite active in her church.

Larry has departed this mortal earth and gone on to wherever all good lawyers go. I guess Elmer continued to frequent The Dew Drop Inn and relate the story of Fred’s demise and his encounter with The Great Red Neck Railroad.

Counsel for Winona Patterson, Tom M.

Counsel for Winona Patterson, Tom M.

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Native American Judge

 Emerald Beach Motel, Biloxi

Emerald Beach Motel, Biloxi

Well, it was June again and the Jefferson Parish Bar Association had gathered at the Emerald Coast Motel in Biloxi, Ms. to hold its annual conference, while the rest of Louisiana attorneys and judges met at the more elegant Buena Vista Hotel down the road.

The Emerald Coast Motel had been the gathering place for our rowdy crew from the time my law partner Wally LeBrun persuaded our bar association to meet annually at this quaint little family-owned motel on the Gulf of Mexico. The Mancuiso family, who were Wally’s clients, built this family retirement business from profits of slot machines, that is until the righteous Senator Estes Kefauver investigated corruption in the gambling world of Jefferson Parish and in effect closed down their business.

The motel was a pleasant little affair with only two stories and no elevators. It had ample parking, a swimming pool, a small meeting room we used as a hospitality room, and a decent little restaurant. Members of our bar association with certain connections saw to it that our hospitality room was well stocked with booze and food. If we felt in need of local entertainment and beverage, there was a little lounge right next to the motel called Sharkey’s.

Emerald Beach Motel

Emerald Beach Motel

In my drinking days, some years prior to the tales I am about to tell, I was prone to consume great quantities of liquor at our bar conventions. One June after drinking three days straight, I woke up with the grandaddy of all hangovers. I desperately searched for booze to no avail. The morning was hot and mucky and I was in agony. I sought refuge in the ice making machine on the first floor. But when I stuck my head in the cool machine to relieve my misery, nature took over and the inevitable occurred. I up chucked all over the ice cubes in the bin. Later when some of my confreres lamented that some fool had violated the ice maker to the point that the owners of the motel had to replace it, I acted surprised and indignant.

By the time I now relate to you I had put a cork in the bottle and had been elected to the bench. At the time of this story, I could only look in amusement as booze deprived my fellow barristers and judges of their  good sense. Our hospitality room was the perfect venue for this enterprise.

Buena Vista Hotel and Motel

Buena Vista Hotel and Motel

Jimmy Wiedner had served as an Assistant District Attorney in my court. I had talked Sam Stevens into the low paying job of representing indigent kids brought before me. About ninety eight percent of the youngsters that came before me were poor. The other two percent went to private schools and had well-to-do parents that could afford expensive, private counsel. I had come to understand that these kids are the most disenfranchised people in our country. They had half-baked parents and no money to afford attorneys.  But that is the subject for a full length book.

Jimmy and Sam were good friends, but battled in court daily. On the occasion of this Bar meeting, the friendly adversaries decided to sail Jimmy’s newly acquired twenty-six foot Columbia sailboat from New Orleans to our conference on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This would not have been a remarkable feat for experienced sailors, but this crew was far from accomplished. Jimmy had just purchased the second hand craft a few weeks earlier and I doubt that Sam had ever set foot on a sailboat.

Columbia Sailboat

Columbia Sailboat

When Sam and Jimmy were eight hours overdue, we became concerned for their well being.  When they were twelve hours late we called the Coast Guard. They were found aground in Lake Borgne, but the good hands from the Coast Guard freed them and delivered them safely to us so they could regale us with their harrowing adventure.

Sam and Judge Pat Carr were good fishing buddies. They shared a fishing camp at Dulac just South of Houma, Louisiana. The pair spent weekends at the camp catching fish, telling stories and sipping whiskey and beer. Well maybe they did more talking and sipping than catching.

One evening before dinner, Sam came to our hospitality room where Pat sat talking to folks and nursing a beer. Sam tended to get a tad belligerent when he drank–which was about every day. He was fairly sauced when he tried to talk Pat into going somewhere with him to see a girly show. Now this was about as close to a girl that Sam cared to get. He was a confirmed bachelor who lived at home with his mother.

Pat declined the invitation, which caused Sam to retort, “You are chicken shit.” Pat, being good-natured and knowing Sam’s propensity to insult people when he drank too much, just ignored Sam. Pat had lived through trying life experiences that enabled him to cope with horny folks. During a bombing mission over Germany in WWII, Pat’s plane was shot down and he had to bail out. He endured the insults of the Nazis for the two years he spent in their prison camp, so whatever his friend Sam had to say just bounced off him like rain on a bird’s wings.

Sam persisted. With a wide-brimmed straw hat atop his flame red hair, Sam stuck his left hand on his hip and leaned his pudgy body forward. He thrust his pale face flaked with red within a foot of Pat’s head. Sam’s crystal blue eyes dazzled with excitement when he reiterated, “You are chicken shit.”

Those of us in the room were astonished to see Sam treat a sitting judge with such disrespect even though he was his fishing buddy and friend. We held our breath to see what the easygoing Judge Carr would do. Judge Carr, a lean muscular man, was not one to back away from confrontation. He finally had enough of Sam’s verbal abuse and just calmly told Sam, “Sam you are drunk. Just go to your room and sleep it off. If you don’t, I just may have to knock your block off.”

Sam jerked up straight, looked up Judge Carr in the eye, gave a little snort, turned and silently walked out the door. Sam, even in an inebriated state, knew when his friend who had grown up on a dirt farm in Mississippi had had enough. Sam also knew that Pat did not issue idle threats.

Lionel Collins was the first black judge elected to the 24th District Court Bench of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Well Lionel was not real black. He was more the shade of cafe au lait with a slight tinge of red. Lionel had I had duked it out in court on many an occasion when I was an Assistant District Attorney trying felony cases and he was defending his innocent clients. Lionel thought all his clients, who happened to all be from our black community, were innocent. He tried to convince me of their innocence every time we met in court, which rarely met with success.

Lionel was always well-prepared. He was a good attorney–well grounded in substantive criminal law and criminal procedure. Although passionate about his representations he was level headed for the most part and held no grudges when he lost a case. When trials concluded we always had frank discussions about what went right and what went wrong in the case. We respected one another and learned much from each other.

At some point in this convention, Jimmy, Lionel and I became bored and decided to go next door to Sharkey’s Lounge to see what the locals were up to. By this time I was comfortable hanging in places where booze was consumed. After all I sobered up in New Orleans, where the city was awash in booze. I learned I could listen to New Orleans Jazz at some of my favorite haunts in the French Quarter with no apprehension. All I had to do is to sit at the bar with a ginger ale and a twist of lemon and nobody cared about what I was drinking.

Jimmy, Lionel and I found a small, round, cocktail table at Sharkey’s and were soon greeted by a young cute, freckled faced, red headed, petite Mississippi girl who introduced herself as Bobby Sue. For those of you not from the South, you must understand that our parents insisted on giving us children two front names.

Greetings from Biloxi Mississippi

Greetings from Biloxi Mississippi

Now sitting with a black man, no matter how light-skinned a sitting judge he might be, in a lounge in southern Mississippi in those days could cause problems. But child-like Bobby Sue was a cheerful, chatty person who did not seem to be upset with our trio. We later learned she came from just below Laurel, Mississippi. After she dropped out of high school, she left her family’s dirt farm and her seven siblings and came to the Gulf Coast to make her way in the world.

Jimmy, always playful, decided to introduce Lionel to Bobby Sue and his father. Jimmy embellished the story by telling Bobby Sue that Lionel was full-blooded Cherokee Indian.

“Wow,” Bobby Sue exclaimed “I never met an real Ingine before. Do you live on a reservation somewhere? Will you be all right if you drink alcohol?”

Lionel, quick to go along with Jimmy’s little charade, told Bobby Sue, “I will be all right with just one drink and no I don’t live on the reservation anymore. My son Jimmy here, came and got me off the reservation and brought me to live with him in New Orleans. He got me a job making costumes for a group that call themselves Indians and march in Mardi Gras parades. I enjoy the work and it pays enough to keep me going with Jimmy’s help.”

“Wow” Bobby Sue exclaimed, “I never been to New Orleans before much less a Mardi Gras parade. Soon as I make enough money I am going to New Orleans and go to one of them parades. I hear it is a real hoot.”

“You must do that.” Lionel told Bobby Sue. “You will not want to leave The City That Care Forgot once you get there.”

“The City That Care Forgot, What does that mean?” Bobby Sue asked.

“You will know after you have gone to your first Mardi Parade?” Lionel told this curious little Mississippi girl.

Bobby Sue hustled off and brought the Cherokee Indian and his son their drinks and me my ginger ale with a twist.

At lunch at Whiteside’s Restaurant back home during breaks from court, Jimmy, Lionel and I regaled our fellow barristers and judges with the story of how the full-blooded Cherokee Indian and his son came to know the delightful Bobby Sue.

Judge Lionel Collins

Judge Lionel Collins

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Bob Zibilich

G. Taylor

Gorman Taylor

“Where I come from we call that sort of fellow an O.B.K.” I must have looked perplexed, because my friend Gorman quietly continued. “Yeah, you know; O.B.K.—Oughta Been Killed,” my friend and former prosecutor Judge Gorman Taylor explained to me. We were sharing our experiences as young prosecutors, and I had just finished my tale of Mabel and Vick Bezou.

The story I related to Gorman described how Mabel stabbed Vick to death on Christmas Eve night at The Canal Bank Inn that served the workers of the industrial West Bank of Jefferson Parish, La, and the trial that resulted from the killing.  Many patrons saw Mabel dispatch Vick with her six inch butcher knife in the lively river front joint that smelled of marijuana and stale booze. Forensic evidence confirmed Mabel’s fingerprints on the knife and Vick’s blood type splattered on Mabel’s dress.

Vick and Mabel lived “common law” for many years and brought four youngin’s into the world. Vick had a history of being mean and abusive to Mabel and the kids. Mabel had no history of violence, but did carry a knife in her purse for protection since she couldn’t afford a Saturday Night Special.

The cogent legal question in this case was: On the night in question did Mabel have a sufficient, legal justification to use her knife in self defense?  A Grand Jury said she didn’t, so my boss assigned me the task of trying Mabel for murdering Vick.

Butcher Knife

Butcher Knife

Bob Zibilich was a friend of mine and one of the best, if not the best, trial lawyer I ever encountered. Every time I stepped into a courtroom with Bob, he taught me a lesson or two. His lean six-foot-four frame, long, wavy brown hair tinted with grey, a shaggy aristocratic mustache, and tweedy clothes made him an imposing figure. His deep, warm, resonate baritone voice reminded one of a grandfather reciting Aesop’s fables to his grandchildren.

The Jesuits formally educated Bob in Greek, Latin and the classics, and even persuaded him to try the seminary for a brief while. Despite his astute education, he communicated in any vernacular with ease and grace. Not pretentious nor condescending, Bob was always warm, sincere and truthful. People, especially juries, instinctively liked and trusted him.

As was the custom in Mabel’s neighborhood, her friends and relatives put on a community “fish-fry” to raise money for her defense. Bob’s defense was going to be simple–justifiable homicide in the exercise of the ancient right of self-defense. Put more crudely, Bob intended to convince the jury that Vick was an O.B.K.

The day before trial, after Judge Cocke ruled on all pretrial motions, Bob and I repaired to the local watering hole, Whitesides, to imbibe, listen to courthouse gossip, and tell tales. Young lawyers kept Bob’s glass full as long as he would tell courtroom stories, which could be all night. I gave up around midnight when Bob was just getting into high gear.

The next day we came to court before the appointed time. It wasn’t wise to show up in Cocke’s court even a minute late. I sat at the counsel table, nursing the mother of all hangovers and promising God I wouldn’t do that again if he would just relieve me of my misery. Bob came strolling in, chipper as usual, and looking as though he had just stepped out of a photo session for Esquire magazine. I knew he must have been hurting as much as me, but the rascal didn’t show it.

We went through the voir dire process with the jury venire (pool of prospective jurors) and selected twelve solid citizens to decide Mabel’s fate. I gave my opening statement and now it was Bob’s turn to explain his defense to these twelve fine people. Bob rose to his full six-foot-four, with nary a note in his hand, strolled behind me, patting me lightly on the shoulder as he went by, and stood directly in front of the jury.

“My name is Bob Zibilich, and I am here representing Mabel Bezou who is charged with murdering her common law husband Vick Bezou.”

He then turned in my direction and extended a hand toward me and said to the jury, “Tom, here is the Assistant District Attorney and he will bring many witnesses and much evidence to show you that Mabel did, in fact, kill Vick on Christmas Eve at the Canal Bank Inn  here in Jefferson Parish. That’s Tom’s job and he will do it well–as he always does.”

Bob went on, “After Tom does his usual good job and proves to you beyond any reasonable doubt that Mabel stabbed and killed Vick… the only thing I can do is show you WHY Mabel had to kill Vick.”

Bob went on to explain his theory of self-defense and why Vick needed a good killing because of his continual and recent battering of Mabel and her children. By the time Bob got through with his opening statement I even sat there thinking to myself, “That no-good S.O.B Vick needed a good killing.”

We tried the case for two days and concluded final arguments and instructions to the jury on Wednesday evening. The jury deliberated for four hours and concluded Mabel had acted in self-defense and rendered a verdict of Not Guilty and set her free. Bob had convinced them that Vick Bezou was indeed an O.B.K.

Mabel’s neighbors and friends had another fish-fry to raise money for her and her kids. I later learned that she eventually took up with a kind, hard-working man who was good to her kids and helped bring them up. As far as I know, she stopped carrying a butcher knife and never got in trouble with the law again.

The Case Fell to Me

As Far As I Know

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Dolphin Divers

In the Swamp

In the Swamp

“This here scar is where my sister jugged me and took my pack of cigarettes,” I told them.

“This’n here is where Auntie Bueler’s good-for-nothing jailbird boyfriend shot me with his little old 22 pistol,” I explained. Here we was at Thanksgiving, sitting in this cold swamp at Morrison Springs in Florida, and these crazy folks with me wanted to know all about how I got this scar and that scar. I got so many scars I can’t remember how I got them all.
Anyways, I went along telling them ‘bout my scars because the nutty old Judge who brung us to this scary place seemed to pay attention to my story, and I thought it was smart to please him. There we was, me, Gerard Haber, five other juvenile delinquents, the weird Judge, his assistant scuba instructor, Mr. Raymond Solaris, and one of the teachers from our special school, Mr. Morris. All of us freezing our asses off in this swamp. One of the other kids, a scrawny little old girl, kept complaining, “I’m cold, and I ain’t going in that cold water.” It was so cold we had to build a fire to warm up our wetsuits that had gotten stiff as a board.  I guess all of us kids was there for the same reason: to con the old Judge into not sending us to Juvie Jail.

The old Judge had this idea that he could keep us kids from stealing, beating up on people and smoking dope ifin he could just teach us to read better and show us how to get jobs. He built us two big old schools where they taught us all kind of stuff, like how to read better, cook, work on cars, take care of plants and yards, work with animals, and work on oil field crew boats and fishing boats. You see, down where we come from there was  lots work to do on boats. Anyways, the old Judge had’em build a big old deep swimming pool so’s he could teach those of us kids who stayed out of trouble how to SCUBA dive, and work on boats. Said he got the idea from some people he knew down in Florida.

Scuba Equipment is Cool

Scuba Equipment is Cool

Learning to use SCUBA equipment was real fun and kept most of us out of trouble for a while. Those who was just hell-bent on getting in trouble, got kicked out of our SCUBA club. We did have some badass kids in our club, but nothing we did seemed to surprise the Judge and Mr. Ray. I remember one day, after SCUBA class we were standing in the parking lot and the Judge said, “Ah, damn, I locked my keys and wallet in the pool locker room.” Now they had built this place with special locks and all because it was in the neighborhood where most of us kids stayed. I am here to tell you that place could get pretty rough. One of our class, a quiet kid by the name of Dave, who was on probation for burglary, said, “Don’t worry, Judge, I’ll get them for you.” In about three minutes, Dave came back with the Judge’s keys and wallet. The old Judge just said, “I don’t even want to know how you did it, Dave.”

After much talk, we agreed to call our club ‘The Dolphin Divers.’ I thought ‘Tiger Sharks’ was a good name. Others wanted to be called ‘Killer Whales’ and some said we should be ‘Barracudas,’ you know, real scary animals. The old Judge explained how intelligent, playful, and friendly to man the Dolphin was. He told us there were stories of how Dolphins had even helped rescue drowning seamen. I think, some of the time, the old Judge was just funning us, but he was partial to the name ‘Dolphin Divers,’ so we settled on that name to please him. It growed on us after a while. We even got jackets and hats with Dolphins on them. As I already said, pleasing the old Judge seemed the smart thing to do. It got us in a swimming pool and out of jail for a while.

But this SCUBA training was tough and some of the kids said “to hell with it” and dropped out of the club. This didn’t seem to bother Mr. Ray and the Judge, because they told us things was going to get even tougher and they wanted only the best of us to stay. Sure enough, it did get tougher. They made us swim with them mask, fins and snorkel and then swim some more. But, I’ll have to say, they swam every stroke with us just to show us it could be done. The mask always leaked water in our faces, but they taught us over and over how to clear the mask until it came natural to us.  We spent a lot of time in class reading manuals, but some of us couldn’t read so good-they say I have something called dyslexia-so we had video instructions, telling us all about pressure under the sea, breathing compressed air and what it could do to you ifin you didn’t breathe right and come up slow. They taught us about how to operate our equipment and take care of it. We even learned how to talk with our hands underwater.

We learned to share our air with one another. They called it buddy breathing. They would take us all six of us to the bottom of this deep pool with our scuba equipment. Then they would come down and turn the air off our tanks one at a time until all six of us was breathing off one regulator. This took some team work, talking with your hands, and staying cool.

Learning to Scuba Dive

Learning to Scuba Dive

They told us about the animals we would see in the sea, and which ones was no danger and which ones not to fool with. We kids talked a lot about sharks and barracudas, but the Judge and Mr. Ray said most of them wouldn’t hurt you ifin you left them alone. One kid asked, “What if we come up on a great white shark?” The Judge said, “We have a procedure for that…you stick your head between your legs.”.One of the kids asked, “Why would you do that?” The old Judge said “That’s so you can kiss your butt goodbye, cause if that great white wants to eat you, he is going to eat you.” He went on to tell us we would not be diving with any great whites. Then there was more swimming, until we were finally able to swim half a mile in under eighteen minutes. We swam so much every day our fingers looked like prunes when we got out of the pool.

After we got good enough with our equipment and swimming, the Judge took us on his sailboat to practice snorkeling in Lake Ponchartrain. All of us kids acted brave, and talked big talk when the Judge took the boat out to where we could hardly see land. Some of us had never been on a boat, much less a sailboat that far out. Everybody got pretty quiet when the Judge and Mr. Ray anchored the boat and said we was all going to get into the water and swim about a hundred yards up current. There was a little chop on the water. It definitely was not smooth like the pool, but things went OK going out and we all seemed pretty calm. Coming back was another deal. When we turned around to swim back, the boat looked like a toy boat miles away. Everybody started to breathe hard and we all sounded like one of them old steam locomotives I use to see in old picture shows. I could hear whistling sounds coming form our snorkels on our way back. We all got back fine. But, getting on a sailboat from the water, with your gear, even with a ladder, took a little doing and we had to help one another.

The Judge's Sailboat

The Judge’s Sailboat

The only time we could go on our check out dive was over the Thanksgiving holidays, so that’s how we ended up in this cold swamp, but what the hell, none of us had any turkey dinner to come home to anyway. Our Thanksgiving dinner would a come from the corner Pack-a- Sack ifin we was lucky.

We first dove in Morrison Springs, then went a few miles away and dove in Vortex Springs. The water was cold and our wetsuits never got dry before we had to put them on again. The water was so clear you could see the bottom thirty or forty feet down like you was looking through a window pane. At first, this kind of takes your breath away, because you feels like you are hanging in mid air. Mr. Morris tried to go diving with the old Judge in Vortex springs, but freaked out when he got over the deep part. The judge got him back to the shore, but Mr. Morris decided scuba diving was not for him.

Learning to Scuba Dive

Learning to Scuba Dive

We tried to get a boat trip in the Gulf of Mexico, but the weather was too bad, so we got in our bus and went to Gulf Shores, Alabama, and stayed the night in a motel hoping the weather would get better. The next morning, they took us to what they called a breakfast buffet, where we could eat all we wanted. That place surely lost money on us. One of the kids, Malcolm, was about six feet tall and about two hundred pounds of pure-dee muscle and bone. He could eat like a horse. I thought he was going to kill himself eating the sausage patties and scrambled eggs. Next he took in on the pancakes and syrup. We all did a good job on that buffet.

The weather was not good offshore, but the old Judge knew about an old boat wreck just off the beach in about eighteen feet of water. The surf was a little rough and the water was cloudy so Mr. Ray and the Judge decided they would take us to the wreck one by one and hold our hands at all times. I went with the Judge, and when we got down to the sunken boat, we could only see ‘bout four feet even with our strong lights. The old wreck had all kinds of holes in it but they had taught us not to stick our hands in places we couldn’t see. We all carried diving knives for safety and to use as tools, but were told if we ever took them out for any other reason, we were out of the club, period. I remember some of the people around the school, who didn’t approve of what the Judge was doing saying, “The Judge is teaching them what…and gave them knives too?”

I took my knife out of its scabbard on the calf of my leg and started to poke in some of the holes. The Judge was still holding on to my left hand when this big old fish jumped out right into my face. I wet my wet suit and started to shoot to the surface, but the Judge held on to me and started laughing so hard in his regulator I thought he was going to strangle and drown his fool self. When we got back to shore he told me my eyes had gotten as big as coffee cups. We had a good laugh about what had happened. We would talk about it when I came back to visit him after I got off probation and got a job on a riverboat as a deckhand.

I don’t know how the other kids got along in life, but I did pretty good after I got away from my crazy family and got on the river. I remember the old Judge telling me on that trip to Florida, there was no shame in having a crazy family. And, according to him, I had no obligation to love them or even put up with them. The only thing I should do was to take care of myself, get a job I liked, and do the best I could in life. Things haven’t been perfect in my life, or even very good some of the time, but I haven’t ended up a jailbird or dopehead like a lot of my family and friends.

I heared the old Judge turned Juvie Court over to some younger judge and moved to Florida with his wife near those cold sinkholes he took us to that Thanksgiving.

The Judge, Ray and Dolphin Divers

The Judge, Ray and Dolphin Divers


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Mike and Panda Bear


Little brothers are always a problem. But precocious little brothers with vivid imaginations can be downright vexing and embarrassing, especially when you are seven and they are three. During our childhood spent at our grandparents’ house on the banks of the Ouachita River in West Monroe, Louisiana, my brother Mike developed a most useful strategy. He invented imaginary playmates. Mike and his new found “friends” would have long conversations in the shade of the huge pecan trees next to the house. They would converse in different dialects, most of which I didn’t understand. This didn’t bother me at the time. It didn’t even seem strange at the time, probably because there were no other kids around to observe Mike’s conversations. And didn’t all kids do this to some extent anyway?

Oh, occasionally I heard grownups make mention of what an imagination Mike had, but I thought they were complimenting him on being so smart.

Morgan Drew, a traveling salesman friend of the family came to visit and brought me a Charlie McCarthy mannequin and Mike a stuffed panda bear. Mike promptly named his bear Pandy.

Pandy stood about a foot-and-half tall with a white face and a soft brown and black body. Pandy had dark brown supplicating eyes and a smile with a slight hint of a smirk. As inscrutable as his master, Pandy was a sturdy little rascal, which he needed to be because he became Mike’s constant companion. To be sure, Mike had other playmates, like Stanley, the family German shepherd. And then there were the doodle bugs, the centipedes and the chameleons which, to my knowledge, didn’t have specific names. Other assorted toy soldiers rounded out the playgroup, but Pandy always presided over the gathering.

Mike cared for Pandy in the most loving ways. He saw to it that Pandy got plenty of imaginary food and that he had a blanket over him when he went to imaginary sleep. Mike and Pandy, and the other creatures, would have long sessions of activities and conversations in the shade of the old pecan trees. These talks were most animated and expressive. Mike would talk to Pandy in Mike’s natural voice, but Pandy would respond to Mike in an entirely different dialect and voice. I envied this ability. I couldn’t get Charlie McCarthy to talk to me this way, no matter how hard I tried.

Mike and Tom

Mike and Tom

Mike’s play time with Pandy and his other “friends” could go on for hours. Some of the other creatures had different tasks. For example, Mike would make carts out of small match boxes. He would then fashion a harness out of string and gently place it around the neck of one of his chameleons and encourage it to pull a cart loaded with marbles. Mike would gently move the doodle bugs around like bowling balls.

During the World War II era, every child had an extensive collection of toy soldiers, which could be mobilized into war games. Pandy would preside over the battles, supreme commander style, between the Allies, Germans and Japanese. General Pandy even had his own jeep fashioned from an old Coca Cola crate.

In 1943, Dad moved the family, including Pandy of course, to New Orleans so he could work at one of the good paying jobs in the shipyards.     Our family rented half a duplex next to the Latuso family. Their house sat on a double lot with lots of shade trees–which provided refuge from the brutal New Orleans sun. The shade also provided a venue to play marbles, mumbley peg, stickup, and other childhood games. These were the games most kids played, but this refuge also gave Mike and Pandy space to build new vehicles and invent their own unique games. They lived in their private fantasy world for hours on end, making plans for future adventures.

The Latusos were of Sicilian decent and had a boy and two girls. The youngest girl, Lana, was small with great dark brown eyes, light hair and olive skin. Lana was a beauty. She was smart and quiet and just a little younger than Mike. Lana, Mike and Pandy became great friends. They were inseparable the first summer we were in the City That Care Forgot. Unlike Mike’s older brother, Lana had no trouble whatsoever understanding and speaking panda language. Lana, Mike and Pandy would spend many hours in the shade of the trees having three-way conversations, seemingly in accord with one another. Their sessions rivaled in intensity the strategic planning of military leaders preparing for battle or corporate executives plotting a hostile takeover.

Brothers in Metairie

Brothers in Metairie

The sessions with Mike, Pandy and Lana went or through our first and second summer in our new home. Most of the playtime with Pandy occurred outside under the trees in the dirt, which, over time, made for a grungy Pandy. But baths were out of the question. Since Pandy had to get transported everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, he was getting pretty travel-worn, and pieces were coming off him. Mother had to sew on an ear, and do extensive surgery to his right arm. One of the button eyes went missing and the replacement eye was a bit off-color. Mike seemed to accept the off-colored eye, saying “I’ve seen dogs with different colored eyes.”

By the end of the second summer, raggedy, filthy Pandy became a topic of conversation with the older kids. Lana staunchly defended Mike and Pandy. And would fight with anyone who sought to ridicule either. Most of our older friends had come to accept Mike, Pandy and Lana’s unique relationship and behavior. However, as new kids joined our neighborhood “gang”, they would make mocking comments to me such as “Hey boy, your brother is weird. He talks to a stuffed bear.” If they introduced me to some of their friends, it would always be with the caveat, “his brother talks to a stuffed bear.” I had become known by all as the Brother-of-Boy–Who-Talks-to-Stuffed Bear, like a Native American in a Saturday movie matinee.

The Metairie Gang

The Metairie Gang

This situation became unbearable. I implored Mother to do something. Mother would speak to Mike, but Mike would still converse with Pandy. I told Mother that all the kids were talking about Mike and Pandy and suggesting, nay, saying that Mike was strange. I had used the word ‘strange’ thinking this would shock mother into action. But even so, Mike’s attachment to Pandy remained resolute. Attempts to part them only led to great consternation and crying.

I was in a quandary.  I didn’t know where to turn. I was a desperate boy and this situation required desperate measures. In the dead of night I went to Mike and Pandy’s bed and slipped Pandy from under Mike’s sleeping arm. I secreted raggedy, dirty old Pandy in the attic of an old storage shed in the back yard. How was I to know that the following month kids, playing with kitchen matches, would accidentally burn down the shed?

Of course, Mike was beside himself when he awoke and found Pandy missing. Mike cried a lot. I even feigned searching for Pandy with mother and Mike, but I knew Pandy had been accidentally cremated and was now in Panda Heaven.  Mother consoled a lot and promised to get Mike a new panda bear. This would not do. Panda himself was gone and couldn’t be replaced by some imposter.

I remained silent. I never confessed my hurtful deed. After seeing Mike’s pain, my shame eroded into guilt. I tried to use the bath of the confessional to wash away the guilt. That didn’t work. I often wondered who got hurt worst by my kidnapping Pandy, Mike or Me.

About forty years after I parted Mike from his faithful companion and confidante, I was having lunch at Tavern On The Green in New York City. While paying my bill upon exiting the restaurant, I noticed they had stuffed panda bears for sale. They looked exactly like Pandy. I got one for Mike. I gave it to him the following Christmas with a full confession and request for forgiveness.

Mike and Tom in Cozumel

Confession is indeed good for the soul.

My Brother Mike

My Brother Mike

My brother Mike is a genius.

His imaginative mind has helped this country send men and women into space and create a space station.

Mike has always been my hero.

I Love Him Like a Brother

Like a Brother

I love Him like a brother.

Posted in Paperboy to Prosecutor | 1 Comment


I sat in the right seat calling out altitude and looking for runway lights. Tommy McKithen sat like a stone statute in the back seat. Dave calmly spoke to the tower and lined up the two needles on the ILS (instrument landing system). We were in a cocoon of pure white rain as thick as wet cotton.

“Seven-hundred-feet-no lights”, I informed Dave. “Five-hundred-feet-no lights”, I continued to advise. “Three-hundred-feet…runway lights dead ahead”, I announced happily. Dave greased his Stinson Voyager onto Runway 10 at Moisant airport in New Orleans in a blinding rainstorm. Dave needed to get home so he could fly right seat to Houston for Eastern Airlines the next day.

As a sixteen-year-old in the New Orleans squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, I had just soloed a J3 cub and been with Dave many times when he slid his little blue Voyager gracefully onto a runway while discussing the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas or some other philosopher. He was the best pilot I flew with in those days. Dave also instructed us kids in the CAP squadron in the basics of aerodynamics, navigation and meteorology, all the while throwing in information about current findings in the world of parapsychology or whatever other scientific discoveries had occurred recently.

Civil Air Patrol Drill Team

Civil Air Patrol Drill Team

Once, he took a couple of us with him to visit his friend at the Benedictine Abbey north of Covington, Louisiana.  Later in life, I learned Dave had studied for the priesthood near Cleveland, Ohio. While at the Abbey in Covington, Dave went into the chapel and, to my astonishment, began to play the great organ with passion and dexterity. One of Dave’s priest friends approached me and said, “Dave does justice to Bach, don’t you think?”

After entering college, I lost track of Dave for about four years until my former wife and I invited Dave to be a part of our wedding party in 1955. Neither of us had seen Dave during that time when he developed alopecia and lost all of his body hair. On the night of the wedding rehearsal at Holy Name of Jesus Church on the Loyola University campus, Dave’s late arrival was announced by the roar of his motorcycle. We all looked up in silent disbelief to see this ghostly figure wearing cowboy boots strolling down the aisle toward us.
Dave’s skin glowed chalk-white with not a bit of hair to give it texture. With no eyelashes or eyebrows, his face looked like the beginning of an artist’s portrait where only the deep, dark eyes had been painted in on stark white canvas. Dave had plopped an outlandish red toupee, which must have come from his back pocket, atop of his completely bald head. His appearance startled all of us.

“You know I would like to be in your wedding tomorrow, but I may have to take a flight to Houston. I wish you well,” Dave said. This was Dave’s way of telling us, “You really don’t want this freakish looking fellow standing in your wedding and I am letting you off the hook.”. We would have been happy to have him, but of course he didn’t show up.

Civil Air Patrol Drill Team in New York

Civil Air Patrol Drill Team in New York

Dave drifted back into my life in 1960 when he came to my law office with two members of the Cuban Revolutionary Forces and asked me to represent them in a suit in which their landlord sought to evict them from premises on Canal Boulevard in New Orleans. Dave explained, “I am helping to train these folks in military tactics at a site north of Lacombe, Louisiana. Come out and visit our training camp, Tom.” I declined that invitation, but did represent the two Cubans in their eviction case.

From time to time, Dave returned to my office seeking pro bono representation for someone. During these visits he talked vaguely about his current activities. On one occasion he asked, “Do you know ‘The Little Man’—Carlos Marcello?”

I replied, “I only know him by reputation, but have never met him.”

Dave asked, “Would you like to go to Churchill Farms (Marcello’s secluded camp in a swamp south of Westwego, Louisiana) and meet him?”  I declined that invitation also. These conversations with Dave about Marcello led me to believe, with a great degree of certitude, that he knew the Mafia boss well and that Dave was probably the man who flew Marcello back into the country after Bobby Kennedy “deported” him.

Dave Ferrie was a strange, enigmatic man. I know that Jim Garrison, Oliver Stone, and probably many others, thought he had something to do with President Kennedy’s assassination. I don’t know about that, but I do know Dave trained Cuban Revolutionary Forces and associated with Carlos Marcello. Beyond that, I know that Dave was curious about everything, and flew an airplane as smoothly as Lindberg and played an organ like an angel.

Civil Air Patrol in New Orleans

Civil Air Patrol in New Orleans

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A View of New Orleans from the Westbank in Gretna

The Honorable Horace T. Wellington fought with me from the get go in the homicide case I tried before him. I could not figure out why. Had we not been Assistant District Attorneys in the same office for three years before the Honorable Horace was elevated to the bench by the good citizens of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana? True, the Honorable Horace had tried just enough cases to preserve his credentials as an Assistant Prosecutor, but never ventured into the deep waters of serious, controversial cases. The Honorable Horace kept a low profile.

In close conversations with select friends at lunch at Whiteside’s Restaurant, across the street from the Courthouse, the Honorable Horace expressed his opinions freely on most any subject. He also, in subtle ways, reminded us at his table that he came from better stock than us. Was his father not a member of the prestigious New Orleans Cotton exchange?    Had the Honorable Haorace inherited the same position from his sire? Did he not attend Ivy league schools? Did the Honorable Horace not own race horses and go to the Kentucky Derby and hob nob with the elite of the King of Sports each spring? Had the Honorable Horace not acquired a home in the elite country club neighborhood of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana? In his own mind, all these attributes and many others set the Honorable Horace apart from the rest of us mere mortals.

But why was he fighting me on this particular case? I had tried cases before him on many other occasions and he spared me this kind of grief, despite the fact that I did have to spend time educating him on the law and criminal procedure. Why had he now decided to take me on in open court?

True, this was an unusual homicide case. The Honorable Hoarace had not tried many homicide cases either as an ADA or Judge. This case called for the death penalty should the defendant be found guilty. Through eyewitness testimony, physical evidence, scientific evidence and admissions made by the defendant Nunzio Occipinto, I intended to prove that Nunzio, who was eighteen years old, did administer to James Norton, who was sixteen, a class 1 narcotic drug of Methadone. James Norton died as a result of ingesting the Methadone given to him by Nunzio. At that time, the Louisiana Criminal Code mandated the death penalty for anyone over eighteen giving anyone under seventeen a class 1 narcotic.

The strange aspect of this case was that Nunzio traded some of his Methadone with James for some street drugs James was holding. During this period, our society was engaged in the Methadone maintenance cure experiment, whereby folks addicted to street drugs were provided methadone in hopes they could relieve their addiction to hardcore street drugs. It seemed that Nunzio preferred his more familiar street drugs to the puny methadone the state provided him. In any event, Nunzio negotiated the trade with James and James ended up dead.

As is normal, the first day of the trial was taken up with selecting a jury that could find for the death penalty if I proved the case beyond any reasonable doubt. The jury could come back with a guilty verdict but without capital punishment. Since most jurors in my jurisdiction were reluctant to impose the death penalty, no matter what they might say in the voir dire examination, I did not expect to get a capital punishment verdict. But, I also did not expect to have to fight with the trial judge to just get a verdict of guilty.

During the whole trial, the Honorable Horace would sustain the defense attorney’s ridiculous objections while sarcastically scolding me before the jury, insinuating that I was handling my prosecution unprofessionally.

At one point the Honorable Horace overruled one of my objections and announced in front of the jury that he had a good mind to dismiss the case. That was my breaking point. I was angry, but I dare not show the jury how infuriated I was with the judge. I had l had long sense learned that juries don’t like angry attorneys. So I smiled and politely asked for a side bar and requested that the jury be excused so defense counsel and I could discuss some procedural issues with the the Honorable Horace.

When I approached the bench, the Honorable Horace shuffled papers on his bench and avoided eye contact with me. This three day fight with the Honorable Horace continued to vex me. When I approached the bench with the defense counsel,  I reminded the Honorable Horace, “I know your Honor is aware that only the Assistant District Attorney can dismiss the case. You don’t have the authority to do this. Of course you can direct a verdict at the end of the trial, but you do this at your own peril.”  This infuriated the Honorable Horace. He shuffled papers more vigorously, and looked anywhere but in my eyes and then blurted out, “Alright, but let’s get along with this silly trial.”

After four days of trial, the jury found Nunzio Occipinto guilty of the charges, but found, as I expected, that the death penalty was too harsh. The Honorable Horace imposed a three year sentence, which meant that Nunzio would be back on the bricks in about one year.

The fight with me during the whole trial and light sentence mystified me until months later I learned that Nunzio’s father, a well known horse trainer, and the Honorable Horace were good friends. Nunzio’s father even trained one of the Honorable Horace’s horses.

Of course the Honorable Horace should have recused himself from this trial. But, alas, on rare occasions, even judges don’t do the right thing.

Old New Orleans Fairgrounds

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I have spent the last two weeks gazing at my TV trying to understand and appreciate the game we call soccer and the world calls football. Why not? Brazil has almost broken itself spending a gazillion, billion dollars building eight magnificent stadiums to present to the world the 2014 FIFA World Cup series.

I watch the matches in awe, marveling that the game has not produced more crippled, brain dead players. Eleven grown, strong young men hurl their bodies at one another at breakneck speeds, viciously banging heads, kicking one another and sometimes a multi-colored ball. They are not allowed to use their hands or arms to touch the ball, but they can bang the hell out of it with their heads. Talk about concussions. I cannot imagine this practice is good for the brain. As the players run around with hands at their sides, kicking the ball, they remind me of giant penguins waddling around in Antarctica.
I am still trying to learn the rules, if there are any, and what the markings on the field signify. I am now informed that the game is played on a pitch, not a field. Time of the match is another mystery. I understand that teams play for forty-five minutes then go out of the hot sun and, I guess go inside for a shower, rubdown and lecture. They return to the field and pay for another forty-five minutes. But wait, at the end of forty-five minutes, some official decides to add on a few more minutes to the game. The exact number of additional minutes remains a secret until the end of what I would call “regular time.” I suppose this time is to make up for time spent attending to injured players or players doing masterful acting jobs of faking injuries. It appears to me that some players should get some sort of award for their acting abilities.

If things are not settled at the end of ninety minutes, plus injury and acting extra time, an additional thirty minutes is tacked on to the match. If things are still not settled, then the match goes into a penalty kick situation, where five payers from each team try to make a short kick past the opposing team’s goal keeper. Whoever gets the most points wins. I don’t know what happens if there is a tie here, but I am sure I will learn.

Of course, players get serious injuries. When this occurs, brawny men rush out on the pitch carrying a man-sized, orange plastic basket that looks like something one would find in a morgue. They lay the injured player in the odd contraption and carry him off the pitch like a half of beef. Sometime, as soon as the player is deposited out of the fray, he jumps up out of the orange basket and gleefully greets his fellow players on the sidelines.

The game does seem to have some rules, but I have not yet figured them all out. I do know that the referee does call fouls. There seems to be several classes of fouls. Some seem to be more like misdemeanors and others like felonies. I have discerned that things are serious when the yellow card comes out of the referee’s pocket. I don’t know what constitutes such a grievous breech of conduct to get one thrown out of the game. I do notice that players from opposing teams console their opponents just after they have knocked billy hell out of him. Their apologies seem less than sincere, and seem only to be given to avoid a foul call on themselves. However I was fortunate enough to see my beloved Ticos, Costa Rica, with only ten men on the pitch, out do Greece in a 5-3 penalty shootout.

Sometimes when there is a foul, the referee spots the ball on the field where the foul occurred and marks the spot with what looks like foam shaving cream. This allows the aggrieved player an opportunity to get a free kick at the opposing goal. It seems that if there is a grievous foul near the goal, The fouled player gets to go one on one with the goal keeper to try to make a point.

I have learned that soccer is a game of anticipation. Very few goals are actually scored, but players run up and down the field like antelope without stopping. Unlike our football, soccer is nonstop. The clock keeps running and there are no timeouts for forty-five minutes at a time. The teams transition from offense to defense continually in seconds. Incidentally, if a team does not get a score, that is not recorded as a zero, it is referred to as, nil. When one team does score there is much jubilation and the teammates of the payer scoring the goal pile on him several players deep. It is a wonder the hero is not smothered by his happy brethren.

Yesterday, I heard a sportscaster say that some techie folks had tracked some players at the ongoing World Cup and found that it was not uncommon to find that some of these well fit, young men run in excess of ten miles during a match. That is while getting kicked by opponents and bouncing the ball off their heads all along. I conclude this a young, tough person’s sport.

I have not yet learned the names of positions the players play, but I can figure out the position of goalkeeper. I have also heard the terms striker and fullback, but I still can not spot them on the field. The goalkeeper has to be a quick, large person because the ball comes to him a supersonic speeds. The goal he must protect seems to be about ten feet tall and twenty feet wide. A lot of space for a man to cover.

Soccer coaches fascinate me. Most come to the game looking much like our American basket ball coaches. They prance up and down the sidelines attired in designer suits and expensive shirts and ties. They wring their hands and rub their heads vigorously when things go wrong for their teams, but engage in manly, enthusiastic embraces with fellow coaches when their team scores that rare goal. They also seem to shout a lot at their players.

Soccer fans rival, or even exceed, our football fans’ energy with their zany exhibitions of bizarre costumes and body decorations to support their teams. All this energy seems to be fueled by great quantities of alcoholic beverages.

Alas, just yesterday, I was sad to see the USA  team lose to the bullies from Belgium –  2 to 1. I am still counting on my friends the Ticos from Costa Rica to come through for me.

My friend and renowned tennis coach Fernando and I spent last Saturday afternoon watching our beloved Ticos get beat by the Dutch in penalty kickoffs after playing extra time. In the last two minutes, the Dutchmen used one of the three substitutions they are allowed to bring in a giant to defend their goal. This Godzilla like man must have been eight feet tall and had an arm span of an orangutang. He successfully defend their goal.

Fernando, a former soccer player from Chile had the patience to solve for me some of the mysteries of soccer. I now know how to spot an off sides, but according to Fernando, these calls, and fouls called by the officials are very “subjective.” In fact, Fernando suggested that the officials should have worn the Dutch colors in their match with our dear Costa Rica team.

Poor Brazil, the host country. I have just watched the crazed Germans humiliate the Brazilians by making an unprecedented five scores in less than thirty minutes. Seems like the Germans could have been good visitors and shown a little mercy. The final score turned out to be a humiliating 7 to 1 in favor of the Germans.

I look forward to this coming Sunday when the Germans and Argentina have the final shoot out in Rio. The dismayed Brazilians don’t know who to pull for. They detest Argentina and don’t care to seem them win on Brazilian soil, but they can not convince themselves to pull for the Germans, who skunked them in their own country. In Latin America, this kind of  humiliation is referred to as “Falta Respecta.”

Well it is over. Germany just bested Argentina by one goal in the last eight minutes of extra time. I am worn out and now must take a siesta.

In any event I have a new appreciation for the game we call soccer and the world calls football.

Posted in To Speak the Truth | Leave a comment

Dead Beat Dads


While on the Juvenile bench, dead beat dads were the bane of my existence. It is a wonder I did not stroke out while dealing with them.

First, let me explain who Dead Beat Dads are. They are the scoundrels who refuse to support the children they sire.  They have every excuse under the sun why they cannot contribute even a modest sum to help support their children. They are the bar room cowboys who saunter into their favorite watering hole in their designer jeans, Stetson hats, and five hundred dollar western boots, (though they have never set astride a horse in their lives) to entertain their good-for-nothing friends. They assert without fear “I will never give that bitch a dime of my money no matter what that stupid judge says.” They don’t mention that “that bitch” is doing the best she can to raise the three young’uns HE fathered.

When they do appear in court, they arrive in a more modest attire, but they cannot resist wearing their gold necklaces, expensive watches and having a package of cigarettes in their shirt pockets. I never understood their stupid need to display their jewelry, but they do. I have seen fishermen from Lafitte wearing enough gold around their neck to drown them should they fall over board from their shrimping boats.

Lafitte Shrimpers

Lafitte Shrimpers

When I explored the nasty habit of smoking cigarettes, I found this unhealthy habit cost  almost enough to feed their kids. Who knows the costs of booze they consumed to salve their conscience for not feeding their kids?

When dead beat dads appear before the bench, they have every excuse in the world why they cannot afford a paltry sum to help feed and clothe their children. After my first year on the bench. I had heard every excuse the human mind could invent. After that time I began offering the offenders before me this out: “If you can provide me with a valid excuse I have not yet heard as to why you cannot support your children, I will consider it. Otherwise the only valid excuses are if you are dead or so mentally or physically ill you cannot work. But since you have made it to court here today, the first excuse is out.” I never did hear a new valid excuse.

To the utter amazement of the DBDs before me I frequently asked the question, “How many time a day do you eat?” After fumbling for words, the response that usually came from the obese person before me was “I only eat once a day.” My response would be, “Well most of us here in the United States of America, including your children, have gotten into the habit of eating three times a day.”

New Orleans food

New Orleans food

To my utter amazement, some DBDs would try to explain away their conduct by telling me that they had a new girlfriend to take care of. My retort would be, “You can have all the girlfriends or even boyfriends you want, but you still have an obligation to help support your children–which I intend to enforce.”

Those who thought themselves to be tough when they swaggered around their bar room friends were not as tough as the run-of-the-mill criminal who populated our local jail. I used jail sentences for Contempt of Court sparingly and only for short terms, because our jail was overcrowded with real bad guys, and locking up a DBDs gave him an excuse for not finding a job. But short stays in The Gretna Hilton, as we called our jail. was necessary for some.

I remember one hapless lad who informed me that he had no intention to pay the back child support he owed because he had a new girlfriend who was now with child herself. I found him in Contempt and ordered him to spend ten days at The Gretna Hilton, with the intent to release him in a few days. When Ronnie, my bailiff returned to Court after escorting the young man to jail, he told me that as they entered the jail, a large fellow from one of the top tiers yelled down to the somewhat puny DBD, “You gonna be mine tonight.” Ronnie said the DBD turned white and asked permission to call his girlfriend. That afternoon a very pregnant girlfriend showed up at court with $650 in back child support, asking for the release of her soon-to-be spouse. I told her we appreciated the money, but her beloved would have to spend two more nights in jail just so he could sort out his options.inmate

We collected weekly from DBDs. Early on, when it came time to set an amount and time at which we could expect the money in our court, the DBDs would offer every excuse why the money could not possibly arrive on a day certain. I finally adopted the procedure of simply asking the DBD, “You name the day we can expect your money.” After much hemming and hawing they would finally give me a day.

After a couple years of remonstrating with DBDs I decided to create a magistrate system to deal with these contrary folks. I persuaded the Louisiana Legislature to create the magistrate system for my court. The magistrates would wear black robes and look like judges. They would deal directly with the DBDs and make recommendations to their sitting judge as to the amounts of and times of payments. Of course, the sitting judge routinely accepted the recommendations of the magistrates and signed an order to that effect.

Judge Tom in the courtroom

Judge Tom in the courtroom

The magistrate system worked well. My first magistrate was Felicia Higgins, better known to all as FiFi. FiFi was the mother of a young child, and a former school teacher turned lawyer. She was married to an attorney. FiFi’s father was a retired Coast Guard Commander who also had a law degree. FiFi had the advantage of attending such fine schools as Sweetbriar while her father was stationed in Washington. Being smart and a military child, attending fine schools and living around the world, FiFi had seen and heard it all. She was stern, but fair with DBDs and suffered not their lame excuses. She was dogged about collecting child support.

We hired Jay, a local attorney as a second magistrate to deal with DBDs. Energetic about his responsibilities almost to a fault, Jay invented creative ways to milk money from the hapless dads appearing before him. Once he reached deep into the legal arsenal of Black’s Law Dictionary and came up with an obscure, and not-necessarily-on point, writ which he employed to have the bailiff to remove the gold chains from a DBD’s neck in order to satisfy delinquent child support. Our Court now had gold chains in our possession. We could not figure out how to convert them to cash to send to the destitute mother, so I had Jay make a deal with the DBD to return his gold in exchange for currency.

When I left the bench, our Court was collecting and disbursing to needy mothers and their offspring in excess of twelve million dollars a year. I guess DBDs still clutter up the dockets of Juvenile Courts all over this affluent country of ours, while I enjoy the company of grandkids here in paradise.

Sailing 12' O'Day with grandkids

Sailing 12′ O’Day with grandkids

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He was not a boy, but he was short. Shorty stood about five four and was about as many inches around his mid section. The mahogany skin of his fifty-year-old moon face wrinkled when he smiled. Shorty smiled a lot. When he smiled the gold tooth that replaced his upper incisor shown like a star on a dark night. A small patch of black hair lay listlessly atop the furrowed valleys of his brown shoe leather scalp.

Shorty’s shoe shine stand stood across St. Charles Avenue from the United Fruit Building where I worked as a law clerk for the last two years I was at Tulane Law School. The good uptown, traditional folks at Phelps, Dunbar, Marks, Claverie & Sims expected me to look sharp while in their employ; therefore Shorty and I got to know one another pretty well. He insured that my cordovan Bass penny loafers met muster with my boss, Mr. John Simms, himself.

United Fruit Company Bldg.In the mid 1950s, Shorty charged 25 cents for a good single color shoe shine. Of course,  a two-tone shine coast all of 35 cents. In addition to honing my shoes to where they became mirrors on my feet, for my 25 cent shine I always had the pleasure of a fifteen minute information-filled conversation with Shorty. When I said something he pretended to agree with he would acknowledge by saying, “Yes Sir, that sure enough be so.” Sometimes he would declare, “Well Sir, can you beat that?”

Shorty had constructed his two-seater stand from hardwood shipping crates that had housed  products shipped from all over the world to the Walnut Street Wharf near Shorty’s uptown home. The stand remained unpainted; it just weathered in the New Orleans heat and humidity. The wrought iron seats atop of the stand came from the demolished Union Pacific Rail Road Station at the foot of Canal Street. The four cast iron feet rest, upon which I placed my feet while Shorty lavished on paste with his bare hands, had seen their better days at the fancy barbershop in the old, renovated Monteleon Hotel. Shorty’s stand took up only maybe 100 square feet in a covered space next to a paved parking lot.

Shoe Shine Stand

When Shorty shined, his customers engaged him in good natured banter, but Shorty, being a whole bunch smarter than his station in life indicated, also listened when it was wise to listen.

Since Shorty’s stand stood beneath the tall commercial buildings of New Orleans, the business and professional elite of the Queen City made up most of Shorty’s customer base. In between jovial small talk with his customers, Shorty listened intently to the business men discuss the goings on of the day. Shorty had befriended a stock broker customer and made small periodic investments through him based on information he picked up daily at his stand.

Everybody conceded that Shorty’s shine was the best in town. Shorty had his own concoctions of shoe pastes and potions that he applied with his bare hands. Then came the big brush that just smoothed out the thick paste. Different brushes for different colors, of course. Next came the rag that Shorty popped, emitting a crack like a bull whip before he vigorously stroked the well worn cloth across the toes then the heels of his customers’ shoes. He did this in rhythm with the jazz music constantly playing on his small second-hand radio. The final touch came when Shorty sprayed his secret magical potion of liquid spit on your shoes and finished them off with final swipes of the rag that, naturally, matched the color of your shoes. Your shoes truly glistened when you stepped down from Shorty’s stand.

Your Shoes Truly Glistened

Shorty always had shoes to shine that customers would drop off at his stand then pick up at the end of the day. I have often wondered how many pairs of shoes the diminutive, energetic man would shine in a day.

One day in spring when I came for my semiweekly shine, I found Shorty talking to an attractive  woman a few years younger than me. Shorty introduced me to Lucy, his oldest daughter. He then told me, “Lucy will we graduating from high school at the top of her class the end of this month then she will be going to Xavier University in the fall. Her Maw and I are mighty proud of her and her other five brothers and sisters.”

After leaving my job at Phelps, Dunbar to fulfill my obligations on active duty to Uncle Sam, then to work off my law school debt in the oil patch of Eastern Venezuela, I returned to New Orleans to start my own law practice.

One day when I had to make an appearance in Civil District Court in New Orleans, I decided to treat myself to a shine at Shorty’s. By now I had not seen Shorty in almost ten years, but I thought he must surely be a permanent fixture at his St. Charles Avenue stand. I arrived at Shorty’s location only to find no Shorty and no stand. Only vacant space where the stand had once stood. Seeing that the parking lot was still in business  I asked Jake, the lot manager about Shorty. This friendly man told me, “Oh, Shorty gave up the business about a year ago. Said he was getting too old for the shine business.”

I asked, ”What is he doing for a living now?”

Jake just just chuckled and replied, “Shorty don’t need to do nothing. You know he be a rich man. Over the years he made some good investments that paid off well.”

I walked off thinking, “Here I am a young lawyer struggling to make a living. Did I embark upon the wrong profession?”tom and betty

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