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December 10, 2004 - The Ledger-Enquirer (GA)

Sadness Cannot Wash Away The Resolve

By Richard Hyatt

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Feelings don't matter when I'm writing about city budgets or sales taxes or school board decisions that have nothing to do with kids. They matter when stories such as Kenny Walker come along.

I didn't know Kenny Walker, and I can't say I fully understand the circumstances surrounding his shooting a year ago tonight. Like you, I came into the story late, watching it unfold a page at a time for 52 weeks. Facts haven't come easily. Tension and racial conflict have helped slow the flow of information. So has a legal system slowed by fate and plain old stubbornness.

Here we are, 365 days after Walker died, and what do we know? If you're even a casual reader of this newspaper, you know that Walker, 39, was killed by David Glisson, a Muscogee County deputy sheriff. The shooting came 48 seconds into a traffic stop that was part of a drug investigation that unraveled on I-185. A grand jury took 41 minutes to sort through the facts of the case before deciding not to criminally indict the veteran lawman.

Over the past week, we've seen a videotape that shows Walker die. We've heard the dispassionate voice of a 911 dispatcher telling anyone with a scanner that someone was down. We've been given mounds of paper that offer conflicting statements from people who were on the scene. That Walker was black and Glisson is white are among the facts of the case. That Walker had that night twice visited an apartment complex where crack cocaine was being bought and sold is a fact. That Walker had cocaine in his system has been revealed. That Glisson had been told that Walker and the other three passengers in the GMC Yukon were armed has been confirmed. That Walker didn't come easily out of the SUV is seen on the video. These facts rattle off like words in a police report. The other things we've learned can't be told in simple sentences.

In our newsroom, we've been reminded of the responsibility that goes with our job. People have accused us of racism. A few white people have said we've ignored Walker's drug usage. A few black people have said we've protected Glisson and his former colleague, Sheriff Ralph Johnson. Supporters of the sheriff have said we've been unfair to Johnson. And, as is so often the case, we've been accused of creating headlines that sell newspapers.

Through it all, we've tried to be careful, fair and thorough. Though we have felt the tension in the community, we have done our best to come down in the middle. Not because of anybody's agenda, but because that is what we do. "We're trying our best to report the news without fear or favor," said Ben Holden, our executive editor.

For 12 months, I've watched the effects of this case on the community and on those close to a case that still has more questions than answers. Several times, I've cried.

I cried with a dignified mother who holds on to the memory of her only son, knowing that truths are coming that will be impossible for her to accept. I cried with a widow who depended on friends to put together toys for her little girl's first Christmas without her Daddy. I cried with a former deputy sheriff and his wife, watching them hold on to each other while I asked questions as if they weren't even there.

During this year, Johnson has lost 30 or 35 pounds and his teenage son has gone through three brushes with the law, one that leaves the future of a 4-year-old girl in jeopardy. Glisson's health is teetering and so are his finances.

Emily Walker is trying to believe in the legal system and mourning the loss of her son. Cheryl Walker is raising her and Kenny's pre-school daughter alone and trying to make the child understand that her Daddy isn't on a business trip to Atlanta. Ken Hodges -- the district attorney from Albany who prosecuted the case -- got married, built a house, survived a car wreck on a rainy interstate highway, then heard a Columbus civil rights leader tell him to get out of town.

Our community has also suffered. Feelings are fragile. Look at the differences in voter preferences along racial lines in the Nov. 2 election, an issue that was the subject of a major front-page story recently in our paper. Listen to the rhetoric of black preachers and the silence of the white clergy. These are feelings that monthly "One Columbus" breakfasts can't completely soothe.

Through it all, there has been hope that people would learn from this experience. I have. I learned about the grown-up brotherhood of black fraternities. I learned about the friction between civil rights leaders, not over justice and freedom but over whose picture is on the front page of the newspaper. I learned that some people prefer to have problems go away rather than finding a solution. I learned that some lawyers like to come late and come in a limo.

It has been a difficult year and it's not over yet. Working on this article Thursday, I needed a break and decided to go out for a cup of coffee. Riding the glass elevator to the lobby, I saw Emily Walker coming in the door. A few months ago, I was surprised when she greeted me with a hug. This time I did the hugging.

She had come to the newspaper to buy a memorial ad in memory of Kenny. She had a picture of him. She had written out the words she wanted to publish. I shared with her my compassion for her and for David Glisson. She said she too felt sorry for him.

After a year, Emily Walker is still sad. But sadness hasn't washed away her resolve. "I'm not quitting," she said.

Richard Hyatt is a senior reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer.

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