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franklin county times

De-mystifying the courts

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
April 28, 2002
I got a chance to meet Mississippi Supreme Court Justice James Graves this week at a meeting of the Lauderdale County Bar Association and I liked his message.
He told the 25-30 lawyers gathered for lunch at Western Sizzlin' that newspapers and other media have an important role to play in educating and informing people about the workings of the judicial system.
Graves calls it "de-mystifying the courts." I call it "putting a face on the courthouse," but it's pretty much the same thing if I understand him correctly. It's the idea that newspaper stories shouldn't be about "motions" and "objections" and "continuances." They should explain, in English, what happens to people when their lives intersect the court system.
Quick takes:
Hate mail: After major trials, I get pretty rough e-mail from the losing side. The Starns trial was no different. I try not to take it personally, but I read it, and I'm serious about hearing what people in pain are saying.
A friend of Peggy Lynn Sloan Starns wrote this week to tell me at length that I had confirmed his worst fears about the media. He was upset at the time, and feels a little differently now  but he made an observation I did not include in the notes that accompanied my trial coverage.
There are a couple of victims you haven't heard about Starns' two school-age children, who will be raised by someone else while their mother serves a life sentence for murder.
Tort reform: Potential gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour visited The Meridian Star this week. Barbour said he agrees with tort reform supporters that Mississippi has become a magnet for out-of-state law firms filing medical malpractice and wrongful death suits.
Barbour said discussion in other states to award compensatory damages to plaintiffs but place punitive damages in a state fund deserves some consideration in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, another Wilkes &McHugh lawsuit has been filed against Guy Howard, who owns Benchmark Health Care. Wilkes and McHugh of Tampa, Fla., specializes in nursing home litigation and has won record-breaking punitive damage awards throughout the Southeast.
Railroad litigation: An unusual lawsuit is making its way through Lauderdale County Circuit Court. It concerns a Dec. 10, 1999, collision between an Amtrak passenger train and an 18-wheeler at a crossing on Marion-Russell Road.
The driver of the truck, Delbert Bissell, died.
The lawsuit was filed by the engineer on the train, who says he sustained injuries to his lungs, lower back and hips. Harry Miller is suing: 1) Amtrak for allowing him to operate his train in unsafe conditions; 2) Norfolk Southern for not making the crossing safe; and 3) Swift Transportation Co., Bissell's former employer, because he crossed the tracks in violation of the company's driving rules.
The case is set for trial Oct. 7.
Gulf Coast conference: Circuit judges Larry Roberts and Robert Bailey attended the Mississippi Trial and Appellate Judges Spring Conference this week in Biloxi. Conferences for court administrators and court reporters ran simultaneously in Bay St. Louis and Gulfport.
Debunkers: The sheriff's department recently warned Lauderdale County residents of an "Area Code 809" telephone scam. According to a department spokesman, people calling 809 numbers to reclaim supposed prizes could be charged as much as $2,425 a minute by grifters in the Bahamas.
Internet Scambusters, www.scambusters.com, says this is the latest incarnation of a three-year-old e-mail scare. Yes, people can lose money taking the bait, but Scambusters says the maximum damage is more like $100.
By the way, specificity $2,425 instead of $2,500, for instance is a hallmark of e-mail hoaxes and urban legends.

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