Crime Fighting: Remembering James Darby

The tragedy of a prophetic letter

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently unveiled his “holistic” plan to end New Orleans’ notorious “culture of death and violence,” by attacking deadly behavior as a transmittable “disease” that police and prosecutors alone cannot stop.

The Landrieu plan contains an ambitious agenda for a city with a homicide rate 10 times the national average (52 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2010), including: finding jobs, mentors and supervised recreation for thousands of youths; street-level interventions by wizened ex-offenders; police crackdowns on illegal guns; and rehabilitation and prison re-entry programs, to name a few.

A recent U.S. Department of Justice study of the city’s crime found that homicide is the main problem facing New Orleans, adding that rates for other serious offenses are “comparable to or lower than the rates” for similar-sized cities. To “crystallize” the challenge facing a new generation, Landrieu recalled the 1994 murder of a boy who had written a letter to then-President Bill Clinton, begging him to stop the violence here.

It was Mother’s Day, 17 years ago, the mayor told a crime summit audience last fall.

James Darby, 9, and his sister and mother had decided to picnic at A.L. Davis Park, located in the same 13th Ward neighborhood that Landrieu calls home. There were other families at the park. A pickup football game began; then a fight broke out. A sister of one player intervened, Landrieu said. She suffered an “elbow to the eye” and left the park crying.

“When she got home, she told her older brother Joseph [Norfleet] and he got really upset,” the mayor said.

“He had been drinking all day and someone had disrespected his sister. On top of that, unbeknownst to anyone else, she was pregnant. Joseph’s father had left years ago, and Joseph, who was only 19, was the ‘man of the house.’”

Believing he had to “avenge his family’s honor,” Joseph and his 14-year-old brother, Michael, got in a car and drove to the park, the mayor said.

“By this time, James and his mother and all the other families were heading home. Joseph and [his 14-year-old brother Michael] pulled up next to the group and Joseph stuck a sawed-off shotgun out of the car window,” the mayor continued. “He fired a shot into the crowd which hit James Darby in the head. James died.”

The Norfleet brothers were arrested two days later. Joseph Norfleet, now 36, is serving a life sentence for Darby’s murder at Angola. Norfleet had undiagnosed learning disabilities and had been shot twice himself before he killed Darby, the mayor said.

Two mothers lost their sons that Mother’s Day. “James and Joseph are gone,” Landrieu said.

More than 4,000 people have been murdered here since 1994. “It must stop,” he said, adding: “We must save all our sons.” Landrieu then detailed his “holistic” approach.

~~~

A closer look at Darby’s murder may be instructive.

First, Darby “had nothing to do with the injuries” to Norfleet’s sister during the “brawl” at the park, a state appellate court ruled in 1998, upholding the defendant’s conviction and life sentence. Norfleet admitted trying to shoot a man he believed responsible for striking his sister but missed, instead striking James.

Second, the Norfleet brothers were not alone; two other men in the car failed to stop the shooting.

Third, the tragic letter young James wrote to Clinton on April 29, 1994, concluded with words of almost-parental encouragement that the boy seems to have learned nine days before his murder:

“Dear Mr. Clinton,

“I want you to stop the killing in the city. People [are] dead and I think somebody might kill me. Would you please stop the people from [kill]ing?

“I’m asking you nicely to stop it. Do it now. I know you can.

“Your friend, James”

~~~

Darby spoke for a generation.

He and his third-grade classmates at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School were asked to write letters to the president for a study of violence, led by Joy and Howard Osofsky, a husband-and-wife psychiatrist team at the Louisiana State University Medical Center.

“We’d promised James and other children that we’d send their letters to the president,” the Osofskys wrote in a 1998 article for a publication at Harvard University. After James’ murder, the president released the letter.

Clinton wrote back to Darby’ classmates, promising action. The need was clear. The LSU study showed that 51 percent of the children interviewed at “two urban elementary schools in New Orleans reported they had been direct targets of violence, while 91 percent of them said they had witnessed some type of violence.” Surveys in other cities found similar results. Clinton invoked Darby’ letter as he successfully urged Congress to pass a major crime bill to put 100,000 cops on the nation’s streets and to build 100,000 new prison cells.

 “Maybe the president realized the children are noticing what is going on.”

Darby’ mother, Janice Payne, said then.

~~~

Landrieu wasn’t the first mayor to invoke James Darby’s death.

In 1994, Mayor Marc Morial, who beat Landrieu in the February primary, summed up the public outrage over Darby’s death, denouncing his killer as a “murderous fool.” Morial vowed to appoint an innovative police chief with a community policing strategy and warned the city’s “gun-toting thugs” and drug dealers, “we are going to sweep you off the streets of New Orleans like the garbage you are.”

The FBI told Morial’s then-new police chief Richard Pennington (1994-2002) that the clean-up would have to begin with corrupt cops on the NOPD. The city ended 1994 with the 424 homicides (84 per 100,000), a city record that exceeds the carnage today. With federal help, Pennington eventually cut the city’s murder rate in half, forcing out 600 cops; dozens went to prison – including two now on Death Row.

Today, nearly a generation later, most of the Katrina-era prosecutions of police have ended. Mayor Landrieu and “reform” Chief Ronal Serpas, an NOPD protégé of Pennington, are negotiating with the feds to reform the NOPD and reduce violent crime. A truly holistic approach to public safety would also include a plan for eradicating the enabling culture of public corruption (elected officials and police alike) that deprives our children of government programs and services.

As Carl Klockars, the late criminologist at the University of Delaware, once told this writer over 10 years ago: “There is no such thing as a clean city with a corrupt police department – or a clean police department in an otherwise corrupt city.”

Next month: Len Davis: “Shattered Shield”

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Reader Comments:
Feb 22, 2012 09:46 pm
 Posted by  MrsB

I recently read a fascinating book called "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. (Little, Brown, 2008) In Chapter 6 of this book, titled "Harlan, Kentucky," Mr. Gladwell talks about the "Culture of honor" and how it has created a distinctive pattern of criminality in the South. I was interested to read this because it seems as if, as Mr. Johnson mentions in this article, all of the remedies to our crime problem are focused on education, finding jobs, more police, etc. Not that these aren't important and can't be helpful, but I'm wondering if anyone in the police department or city administration has considered Gladwell's perspective.
As I was reading the article and thinking about Gladwell, I got to the description of Joseph Norfleet's murder of James Darby and there it was: "Believing he had to 'avenge his family's honor'...[he]got in a car and drove to the park."
According to Gladwell, then, our city's crime problem is rooted in the "culture of honor." So what are we doing to change that culture or at least adapt a culture of honor that doesn't include killing? Gladwell doesn't really give any solutions to the problem, and I don't have any either. But I would be interested to hear whether those who are attacking this problem have considered this spin on it. It might make an interesting future article...

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