Headlines – 9/27/2005

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Panolian: HEADLINES – September 27, 2005

  From the 9/27/05 issue of The Panolian :                    

‘It couldn’t have come at a worse time:’ after dry summer, hurricane swamps county’s cotton, rice
By John Howell Sr.

Hurricane Rita’s Panola passage was especially ill-timed for cotton and rice producers, agricultural experts said this week.

"It couldn’t have come at a worse time," Panola County Farm Service Agency Executive Director Kim Billingsley said.

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"Twenty-five percent of the cotton is on the ground; that’s 25 percent of the lint," Billingsley said. He made his preliminary loss estimate Monday morning following conversations with cotton producers in several areas of the county.

The loss to cotton producers will come "not so much from the plant being blown over but from the lint blown onto the ground," the director added.

William Cole of B and R Crop Insurance agreed with Billingsley’s assessment about the cotton crop and by noon Monday had also learned some of the extent of the damage to rice.

"It looks like the rice that hasn’t been cut yet is laying on the ground," Cole said. "Right now, at the stage it is in, laying on the ground will make it sprout," and unsalvageable, he said.

Billingsley said that many cotton farmers in Panola County were already expecting yields to be reduced by dry weather during much of the summer growing season.

"Later cotton did better," Cole said.

Soybean yields, already curtailed by the dry weather, did not suffer much from the hurricane-spawned winds and rain on Saturday and Sunday, Cole said.

Billingsley said that the county received from two to three-and-one-half inches of rainfall as Rita passed through the county on Saturday and Sunday. Though the timing was bad for the ripened cotton and rice, it was ideal for pastures, he said.

Court TV airs, debates murder trial
By Billy Davis

A Panola County murder trial aired throughout the day last Friday on Court TV, giving viewers a condensed version of the four-day trial mixed with analysis and interviews.

A Panola County circuit jury last month found Demetrius Smith, 27, guilty of kidnapping and drowning Carnesha Nelson, 20.

Nelson, an Ole Miss student from Moss Point, was kidnapped from her Oxford apartment on Thursday, May 27, 2004. Her body was found in Sardis Lake two days later, her hands bound by a cell phone charger cord.

Smith, who is from Quitman County, is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday, September 29, at the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville.

District Attorney John Champion did not seek the death penalty against Smith, a decision that sets up an automatic life sentence without parole.

The daytime trial footage progressed Friday in five-minute courtroom segments and studio analysis by anchors and legal experts. The trial began airing at 8 a.m. C.S.T. and continued through 4 p.m.

"I thought Court TV did a good job, a classy job, of presenting the case," said Champion, who watched portions of the afternoon airing.

Champion was aided in court by Assistant District Attorney Rhonda Amis of Batesville and Lafayette County District Attorney Ben Creekmore.

Public defender Clay Vanderburg represented Smith in the case.

In the early "Open Court" segment of the trial, television viewers witnessed the testimony of Tara Tavaris, a neighbor of Nelson’s in The Cove Apartments in Oxford.

Tavaris testified that Nelson begged for help, nearly ripping the chain from her apartment door as she tried to escape from an unnamed rapist.

Tavaris didn’t let Nelson in, instead dialing 9-1-1 and telling police what she had witnessed.
"I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do," Tavaris told jurors.

After that segment aired, a three-person Court TV panel disagreed over whether Tavaris should have let Nelson into her apartment.

"I think she should have let her in," said analyst Deborah Robinson, whose opinion was seconded by defense attorney David McGruder.

"Open Court" anchor Lisa Bloom disagreed, noting that Tavaris had just seconds to decide what to do when confronted with Nelson’s plea for help.

"I honestly don’t think we can second guess her," said Bloom, who anchored the first two hours of
the trial.

During her "Trial Heat" show that aired two hours into the trial, Court TV anchor Jami Floyd touched on the racial issue of the trial, saying she was impressed by law enforcement’s intense investigation of a murdered black woman.

Along with viewers, Floyd had been watching the trial testimony of Lt. Alan Thompson of the Miss. Bureau of Investigations, who had been testifying for the prosecution.

Thompson’s agency had worked the murder case alongside the Panola County Sheriff’s Department, the Oxford Police Department, and the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department.

"I take my hat off to the state of Mississippi," said Floyd, who is black, as she looked into the camera.

Panola sheriff’s investigator Mark Whitten, who was a trial witness for the prosecution, talked live to Floyd in a 10-minute exchange that began at 11:30 a.m.

Whitten spoke from the investigators’ office at the sheriff’s department, where a TV near his desk tuned to Court TV showed him on the witness stand examining the cell phone cord.

The TV also beamed a sickly crackling noise when a bad phone connection between Whitten and Floyd cut short the first attempt at an interview.

Once the pair was reconnected, Floyd grilled Whitten about a "rush to judgement" to finger Smith for the crime over several other suspects.

"We interviewed seven to eight other males and each of them was able to provide an alibi, everyone except Smith," Whitten calmly replied.

Floyd concluded the interview by thanking Whitten and other investigators for the scope of the investigation, saying that black victims of violent crime are often overlooked by law enforcement officials.

"That clearly was not the case here," Floyd said.

As he waited on the phone for the live interview, Whitten told a Court TV producer that the television pundits were incorrectly referring to him as "Sheriff Whitten" instead of his proper title, "lead investigator."

"I’m not the elected sheriff," said the investigator, who instead is one of 11 candidates seeking the office.

The miscommunication was still apparent when Whitten went live on the air. Floyd told the investigator a "pretty intense debate" was raging over his proper title (or more likely over who was in trouble at Court TV for passing along the wrong title).

Reached Monday morning, Champion said he watched portions of the afternoon airing after wrapping up a morning trial in Charleston.

The state had rested its case by early afternoon, but the district attorney did get to watch his cross-examination of Smith.

"My goal in the cross-examination was to get the jury to see what he really was," Champion said. "He was a con man. He thought he would be able to charm the jury."

Sardis Lake Clean-Up
     Volunteers who joined in Sardis Lake’s annual clean-up day Saturday enjoyed lunch at mid-day provided by volunteers and Corps of Engineer personnel. Over 100 volunteers cleaned and rehabilitated nine miles of trails, planted a flower bed, cleaned shore lines around the Lower Lake and in the Teckville Landing and Clear Creek areas, Clean-up Day coordinator Pamela Samuels said.
Full plate awaits at special session
By Billy Davis

Panola County’s legislative representatives expect to tackle several hot topics during a two- to three-day special session that begins today.

Gov. Haley Barbour has called the session to address Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast, and he alone sets the agenda for the session.

Although specifics were unknown Monday morning, Rep. Warner McBride said he expects public education, insurance and transportation will be among the topics.

Still another likely topic is a loan program for small businesses impacted by Katrina, said Rep. Leonard Morris.

And both legislators are already hearing from constituents over one likely subject: a proposal to move the Gulf Coast’s seashore gaming industry farther inland.

"I’m getting five to six e-mails a day about it. Most are opposed to the idea," McBride said.

Morris said he, too, is receiving e-mails about the subject but most in opposition to inland gaming are railing against gambling in general.

"Most are opposing gaming period," Morris said.

Though both Morris and McBride said they will wait to see a proposal on paper before deciding their vote, Morris said he is "leaning heavily" toward land-based gaming if it’s contained in the coastal counties.

"I’m not in favor of (gaming) expanding to new counties, but the gaming is here and it’s not going away," Morris said. "If I oppose it, what do I tell the 14,000 folks who have family that’s depending on their gaming job?"

Sen. Nolan Mettetal of Sardis said the legislature’s work this week comes after the state opened its arms to the victims of Katrina.

"The people of our state came together, and it humbled me to see how good and generous Mississippians can be," Mettetal said.

"Now it’s our turn to get the wheels turning and go to work," the senator said. "We’ve got to get some people back to work. We’ve got to get the state moving again."

Regarding education matters, McBride said legislators must work on tough questions such as whether to make Gulf Coast schools abide by the 180-day school year and whether to pay public school teachers while the schools are closed for reconstruction.

"We’ll also have to look at community college and university campuses that were hit by Katrina," McBride said, "and now some buildings at Mississippi State were hit by tornadoes from Hurricane Rita."

The matter of small business loans will be a hot subject, Morris said, as legislators decide how the money will be administered and who will qualify – and who won’t – for financial help.

The legislature is set to convene at 11 a.m. today. McBride said he plans to attend a 10 a.m. meeting to hear an update from MEMA and FEMA officials about the aftermath of Katrina.

Both McBride and Morris said they expect the special session will continue for several days this week.

Post-Katrina, Hurricane Rita posed ‘many challenges’ to power suppliers across state
By Rupert Howell

Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association reported outages throughout its 10-county power distribution area with all customers restored by early Sunday evening, according to director Margaret Russell.

Approximately 7,000 members experienced outages at some time between 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday evening around 10, a TVEPA spokesman said.

The outages were caused by remnants of Hurricane Rita which passed through North Mississippi last weekend.

Hardest hit areas were in Tate and Yalobusha areas and Sardis Lake Estates in Panola County, according to Russell.

Entergy Mississippi service area crews were repairing damage from the hurricane remnants in the Sardis and Como area.

There were less than 100 customers out in the Sardis and Como area as poles and lines were down along Hwy 310 at I-55 in Como.  Poles and lines were also down in the Jonestown, Marks, and Tunica area at 5 a.m. Monday.

"This is a very frustrating situation – both for our customers and our company," said Carolyn Shanks, president and CEO of Entergy Mississippi. "The damage from Rita is not as widespread as we saw during Katrina but, where Rita did hit, we are experiencing many challenges."

After slamming the coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana, Hurricane Rita blew into Mississippi and stayed for two days. As it traveled, first up the western side of the company’s service territory then across its northern top, the storm dumped rain and blew limbs into power lines. In many cases, the damage was to homes and businesses that just recently had power restored after losing it to Hurricane Katrina.

At the peak of Hurricane Rita, more than 29,000 Entergy Mississippi customers were without power in the midst of downed power lines and poles.

As of 5 a.m. Monday, work crews had reduced that number to less than 8,000 homes and businesses. Less than 500 customers were without power in the Senatobia Network which serves this area.

Officials say electric service will return to most customers by late Wednesday but restoration could extend to Friday in some of the harder hit areas.

All customers in the Senatobia Network should have service by Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.  Entergy reminds customers whose home or business has a damaged meter base, conduit or weather head that repairs must be made by a licensed electrician before service can be restored.

In addition to Mississippi, Hurricane Rita caused widespread damage in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  As of Monday morning, more than 500,000 customers in those three states were without electricity.

"Our customers have been very understanding of the situation," said Shanks.  "We appreciate their patience during these unprecedented back-to-back storms."



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