Dept. of Symbolism
In 2003, evangelical Christian sculptor Max Greiner had a godly vision of a mammoth cross sitting atop a hill at the gateway to the Guadalupe River town of Kerrville. Now Greiner’s vision appears to be coming true.
That’s thanks to the not-so-divine intervention of State District Judge Keith Williams, who on March 1 blessed a settlement, ending a legal dispute between Greiner’s The Coming King Foundation and local residents. The settlement means Kerrville residents and Interstate 10 travelers soon will be greeted by a 77-foot steel cross.
The giant cross was delivered surreptitiously in October—litigation kept it from being erected. It now lies atop a 400-foot hill in Lot 11 of the Mesa Vista subdivision, next to a massive concrete pad that will support the 70-ton cross, and a portable toilet, both visible from the highway.
The cross will be the crown of a 21-acre, hillside Christian-themed sculpture and prayer garden being developed with private funds by Greiner’s foundation. Subdivision residents originally filed a lawsuit against the foundation on the grounds that erecting the cross would violate deed restrictions for the 37-year-old rural neighborhood (see “A Sign From God?” March 19, 2009).
“This has been a long, emotional journey for everyone,” Williams said in rendering his judgment. “Many people in this community didn’t understand the true nature of this dispute. This was not a freedom of religion or speech issue, but a disagreement among the parties about the enforceability of Texas real estate issues.”
The settlement will allow the foundation to erect its cross in exchange for privacy guarantees for residents. The agreement prohibits public access to Lot 11 and requires the foundation to construct a stone or masonry fence across the two-acre tract fronting Mesa Vista Lane, where most of the plaintiffs reside.
Emma McClure, who owns a lot adjacent to the cross site, says she’s happy the issue has been resolved because the trial outcome might not have been as favorable. She adds that she was “tired of having commotion going on all the time.”
The Coming King Foundation can’t say when the cross will actually go up. “We had to put money into this lawsuit that was originally intended to be poured into the garden,” Greiner says. “We’re trusting God to do what he said he’d do. We have the largest Christian tour company in the U.S. waiting to book tours, and to work with ministries and churches to send people [to Kerrville] on buses and on planes.”
The coming pilgrimage of evangelicals and other “believers” doesn’t sit well with some Kerr County residents who don’t want their community to become known for a humongous cross that they think might send the wrong signal about Kerrville’s religious and spiritual tolerance. Then there’s its gargantuan size.
“You’ll be able to see that damned thing for 100 miles in each direction,” says area resident David Toms. “That’s just what we don’t need.”
Laredo’s Modest Advocate
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, hundreds of thousands of people live without running water, sewage service or electricity in unincorporated subdivisions known as “colonias.” Texas has the largest number of colonias—an estimated 400,000 Texans live in more than 2,200 of them. The average yearly income of colonia residents is less than $10,000, and unemployment is more than eight times the state average.
Texas’ political leaders have done little in recent years to aid colonias. The “about” page of the Texas secretary of state’s “Colonias Ombudsman Program” is blank save for a quote from Gov. Rick Perry.
One person who’s helped improve conditions in colonias is Israel Reyna, though you’ll never hear him take credit for it.
Reyna runs the Laredo office of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that provides free representation to impoverished residents of South Texas. Reyna and his staff work to ensure that workers receive workers compensation and overtime pay, that day laborers aren’t arrested and harassed by police merely for looking for work, and that water and sewage providers offer service to the colonias that dot the border region.
Reyna joined the nonprofit straight out of law school in 1980. He’s one of the rare advocates who knows how to needle political leaders into action—then step back and let them take the credit.
“He is not someone that has ever been in the limelight or sought the limelight,” says Jose “Chito” Vela, who works in the office of State Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Corpus Christi Democrat. Before joining Ortiz’s staff, Vela served as the city manager of El Cenizo, a colonia south of Laredo that was incorporated under Reyna’s guidance. Since El Cenizo incorporated, the community has levied taxes and now provides residents with some basic services.
Under Reyna, the legal aid group also serves as what staff attorney Fabiola Flores calls a “baby lawyer factory.” Reyna recruits law-student interns and entry-level attorneys from across the nation and puts them to work on pro bono cases. He enlists them in the cause, as he puts it, “to get things right. To move mountains … for little people.”
He’s reluctant to take the credit. “I am the messenger, not the messiah,” Reyna says. “The heroes are the clients—the people who stick their necks out and expose themselves to the risk of litigation.”
Says Vela, “If you’re promoting democracy, you can’t come in from above and lift up these people—they have to lift themselves. At some point, you’re going to go away, and the people are still going to be there. So they have to be able to organize and lead and fight for themselves.”
Dept. of injustice
Who Gets Wrongly Convicted
On Feb. 4, Freddie Peacock was cleared of his 1977 conviction for rape in New York State. He’s the 250th wrongly convicted person exonerated in the United States by DNA testing, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. To mark the occasion, the Innocence Project released a report that details each of the 250 cases. The report is a stunning compilation of who gets wrongly convicted and why.
No state has sent more innocent people to jail than Texas. The Lone Star State accounted for 40 wrongful convictions—16 percent of the national total. That was nearly double the number of exonerees from New York and Illinois, the other two most prolific states.
Sixty percent of the 250 are African-American; 29 percent are white. Seventeen were on death row when they were exonerated. That’s 17 innocent people who would have been executed had DNA testing not cleared them. You have to assume there’s been an innocent person somewhere who wasn’t lucky enough to have testable DNA and was wrongly executed—possibly in Texas and possibly Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for killing his three children in a house fire. Forensic experts who have since studied the case believe the fire was accidental.
There are numerous causes of wrongful convictions, but by far the most common is witnesses pointing out the wrong person. Seventy-six percent of the exonerees were sent to prison, at least in part, by witness misidentification. In 38 percent of the cases, more than one eyewitness wrongly identified an innocent person. (It was witness misidentification that sent a Texas Tech student named Tim Cole to prison in 1987 for a rape he didn’t commit. Cole died in prison in 1999 and was exonerated by DNA testing last year. Gov. Rick Perry finally pardoned Cole in early March—which is why he wasn’t on the Innocence Project’s list a month earlier. It’s the first posthumous pardon in Texas history.)
Finally, the 250 wrongful convictions allowed the actual perpetrators to later commit at least 72 violent crimes that could have been prevented. This is a facet that’s often overlooked. Wrongful convictions harm many people, not just the person imprisoned.
After the Innocence Project report’s release in early February, it took just two weeks for the 251st wrongful conviction to pop up. Cole will soon be added to the list. Many more are surely coming.
militarizing the border
Predator vs. Aliens
The Texas-Mexico border has become so militarized—what with the wall, the video cameras, the ground sensors, and the soldiers and Border Patrol agents. Now a Texas congressman is talking about a Predator drone circling overhead.
Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, is pushing for a drone to patrol the border. These are the same unmanned, remote-piloted drones that are bombing Pakistani tribal areas. Under Cuellar’s proposal, the border drone would be for surveillance only and wouldn’t be loaded with missiles—at least not yet.
The San Antonio Express-News reported recently that Cuellar plans to ask officials from Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration in April to authorize the border drone. Cuellar told the newspaper that drones could help monitor remote areas that are hard to patrol on the ground.
Each drone costs about $4.5 million. They also seem to have a propensity for crashing, according to the Congressional Research Service. And the FAA has questioned whether the drones can safely operate in high-traffic airspace, according to the Express-News.
The prospect of drones on the border is great news for the California firm General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which makes the multi-million dollar Predators, but perhaps not so great for border communities and their civil liberties.
Where does the militarization end?
—Melissa del Bosque