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Behind the scenes at the Corasanti trial: 'It's testy in that courtroom'

News Reporter Patrick Lakamp has covered his share of trials, but he's never been in a courtroom as high-tension as the one he's in right now.

It's the trial in Erie County Court of Dr. James G. Corasanti, charged with manslaughter and driving away from the teenage skateboarder he fatally struck, Alexandria Rice, on July 8 on Heim Road in Amherst.

"There have been moments when it seemed like it was getting personal among the lawyers," he told me when I called him to talk about the trial.   "It's testy in there."

The topic and the circumstances could not be more tragic or serious.

Nevertheless it may be unsurprising that there's some legal theater going on.  Lakamp talked about an apparent reprimand on Friday from Judge Sheila DiTullio after Corasanti held a cup of water up to one of his lawyers, Thomas Burton, who is disabled and in a wheelchair. 
"She called all the lawyers up to the bench," Lakamp said.  "What Corasanti was doing put him in a sympathetic light to the jury and it seemed obvious to me that she didn't want that, or anything like it."
He noted that the judge is effectively keeping all the lawyers in line.

The sheer legal firepower is notable, as well, Lakamp said.  "I've never covered a trial where there are three first-line attorneys on each side."  He was talking about Kelley Omel, James Bargnesi and Christopher Belling from the District Attorney's office, and Joel Daniels, Cheryl Meyers-Buth and Thomas Burton for the defense.  All, he said, are impressive.

Why such public fascination with this trial?  Lakamp, whom you can follow on Twitter at @lakampbuffnews and in his live updates on the News website, says it's simple enough: "The fact that he's a doctor and left.  That's the whole thing.  That and the contrast between the doctor in his BMW and the girl on a skateboard."  Her dream, he noted, was to study fashion design; she had hoped to do so at Erie Community College.

Lakamp's most recent story, on today's testimony, is here.

Twitter: @SulliView

What's better than 'Words With Friends'? That's easy: Music From Friends

I reached a point about four days ago when I simply could no longer tolerate the music that had been keeping me going.

 Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball"? Enough already.  Foster the People?  So last summer.  Usher's "Burn"? Once my favorite, and now deeply tiresome.  The mashup of Drake and Adele that seemed fresh a month ago"? I'd rather sit in silence. Overkill will do that.

So I did the sensible thing.  I posted a low-key request on Facebook for suggestions of new music in the genres of alternative, power-pop and neo-soul/R&B.

 Within a few hours, I was a rich woman.

 My college friend Dan Butturini in Connecticut suggested Mayer Hawthorne's latest album, "How Do You Do?" I checked it out and was immediately entranced.   It was Motown with a fresh twist from a young Ann Arbor singer-songwriter -- a former hip-hop deejay -- who looks like Clark Kent and sings like a dream. (His video is at the end of this post.)

Local musicians (who happen to be married to each other) Erin K. O'Brien and Michael Swain each checked in.  Erin brought my attention to Live From Daryl's House -- the amazing live web concert that Daryl Hall has been doing the past few years, inviting musicians of every stripe to join him. I lost the next several hours of my life happily exploring back episodes.

 Michael suggested neo-soul sensation Raphael Saadiq, whose "Stone Rollin'" is not only a great song but quite a sultry video.   

And there were plenty of other suggestions -- all appreciated, and more than I can mention here -- including those from experts like News critic Jeff Miers who thought I might like the Beatle-y band Purple Melon, and singer-songwriter Michael Oliver who offered power-pop band The Menzingers' "On the Impossible Past."

News Online Editor Geoff Nason suggested alt-country's First Aid Kit.  News reviewer and Block Club editor Ben Siegel liked Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.   Alfredo Carbajal, managing editor of Al Dia at the Dallas Morning News, demanded that I download his album-of-the-year choice, "My Head Is An Animal" from the Icelandic alernative band Of Monsters and Men.

So since I like to share, too, here's one of my favorite new songs, Mayer Hawthorne's  "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," recorded on "Live From Daryl's House."   


County and state officials: Investigate CPS -- for Abdi and countless abused children

News Deputy Editorial Page Editor Kevin Walter's work has won many a writing award, so I won't try to say it better than he did in his editorial in today's News.  But I will draw it to your attention.

The headline reads "System failed Abdifatah: We need an investigation into why county agency didn't protect boy."  You can read it here.

We'll be watching to see who, among our public officials, steps up to take action.

For background, here is my earlier post on the subject: "Covering a 10-year-old Buffalo child's beating death and taking it personally."


Twitter: @SulliView

It's 'Poem In Your Pocket' day. Go crazy.

I spent a while Wednesday night at Buffalo General Hospital with a friend whose elderly mother had been admitted with a serious condition.  The friend is a literary sort, and, although she's been preoccupied with her mother's failing health, she found time to print out poems for her various visiting friends. Mine was Walt Whitman's "Miracles."   Someone else got John Keats.

Why?  Because, as part of National Poetry Month, this is  "Poem in Your Pocket" day.  The idea is that you find a poem you love, carry it around and share it with friends, co-workers and family members. (And yes, a certain famous Mae West line about a gun does come to mind, but let's leave that be.)

Here's NPR's take on the day and its purpose.

 I'm especially partial to William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming" and T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," though I wouldn't be at all averse to something from recent Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith's "Life on Mars," particularly "My God, It's Full of Stars."

The "poem in your pocket" concept is unassailable.  I folded up the paper my friend handed me and tucked it away.  I'll be carrying "Miracles" around all day.


Here's Tracy K. Smith on PBS, explaining the science-fiction inspiration of her prize-winning book and reading from "My God, It's Full of Stars."


Twitter: @SulliView

DUELING VIDEOS: Clinton's sax on Arsenio vs. Obama's 'slow jam' on Jimmy Fallon

In June of 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton built his popularity among young voters with a landmark TV appearance on Arsenio Hall's show, wearing shades and playing a funky "Heartbreak Hotel" on his saxophone. 

Maybe that's what President Obama had in mind when he decided to "slow jam the news" on Jimmy Fallon's NBC late-night show Tuesday.

Arsenio Hall quipped about Clinton and his sax: "It's nice to see a Democrat blow something besides the election."  That fall, Clinton went on to win the presidency.

Let's see if Obama's significantly wonkier, though still highly entertaining, slow jam about student loans has the same effect.

The Los Angeles Times' take on the Obama performance puts it in political context, while the Washington Examiner says the president embarrassed himself and has jumped the shark.

For the sake of comparison, here's a clip of Clinton on Arsenio. 


Twitter: @SulliView

Garry Wills' biting rejoinder adds to the debate on the Vatican's rebuke of U.S. nuns

Garry Wills, the Pulitzer-winning historian who is one of the leading thinkers on Catholicism in America,  has a few choice words for the Vatican on its recent rebuke of American nuns.

In a blog today for the New York Review of Books, Wills writes, under the heading "Bullying the Nuns":

"The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops' thinking.  That statement is profoundly true.  Thank God, they don't." 

I wrote about this controversy the other day and got a great deal of response from local readers, expressing a broad spectrum of opinion.  

Some of the response came by email, with many readers providing memories of nuns who made a positive difference in their lives, and a few saying "You go!" to the Vatican. 

Reader Bill Walsh praised his childhood teachers at St. Thomas Acquinas in South Buffalo (he is a 1960 graduate who went on to Canisius High School) and adds:

"I firmly believe that if one is not happy with the organization then one should find another one.  It’s not enough to say 'I’m Catholic but I disagree with the Church’s position on abortion or the gender of priests or the teaching relative to out-of-wedlock sex.'  These issues, particularly the first one, go to the core of what the Church stands for. " 

The nuns who are drawing the Vatican's attention, Walsh says, are outliers:  "They have an agenda, which is fine, but when it clashes with the teaching of the Church, there are consequences.  In any event from what I have seen, it’s not like there has been some sort of draconian discipline administered here."

Patricia Farrell --  a senior vice president for Merill Lynch in New York City, educated in Buffalo by the Sisters of Mercy at St. Teresa's and Mount Mercy, whom she praises warmly -- represents the other side: 

"Whenever I get fed up with the archaic actions of the Vatican and its backward sexist leadership I have to ask myself what causes me to remain a Catholic?  Some days this answer does not come easily. The Vatican’s teachings against homosexuals, suppression of  women, chastising  the divorced, favoring  the wealthy, prohibiting  birth control among other atrocities make me wonder why I choose to be a  member of such a closed, dark judgmental  society. But then I remind myself, this dark, cryptic tomb  is not my Church! My Church is not the rules, the fundamental teachings, the incense or the rote prayers.  My Catholic Church is a spirit burning  bright and warm and is welcoming , loving, cheerful and hopeful. It is not a building but a way of life.  Who wouldn’t want to be a member of my Catholic Church?"

Some response came in online comments -- including critiques of "cafeteria Catholics" to tales of nuns who weren't so wonderful.   Here is that initial post, where you can review the reader comments.

In addition, NPR's "Talk of the Nation" on Monday featured this story, "Vatican reprimand of U.S. nuns divides the faithful."

And the BBC interviewed Sister Simone Campbell, who heads the social justice lobby known as Network.  She predicted that the plan to have the American bishops rein in the wayward nuns may not go all that well:

"It's totally a top-down process and I don't think the bishops have any idea what they're in for."


Meanwhile, News Religion Reporter Jay Tokasz is working on a piece on local Catholics and their reactions, so stay tuned.


Twitter: @SulliView

A rare bright note for journalism graduates to balance the usual gloom and doom

A new Georgetown University study says journalism majors may not be quite as afflicted by the economy as we might have thought.

Here's the report from, which notes that recent journalism graduates have a 7.7 unemployment rate, compared to the overall national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, and a 13.2 percent rate for all of those in the 20-to-24-year-old age group.
Meanwhile, using the same Georgetown data, the Daily Beast identifies  "The 13 Most Useless Majors, from Philosophy to Journalism."  It's notable that of those, journalism has the lowest unemployment rate for recent graduates. 

These majors -- including film studies, music and English literature -- may be tough sells in a brutal economy, but I think they ultimately will stand the students in good stead.   These are majors that will make the graduates interesting, accomplished people who have a great deal to offer employers and the world.

I don't discourage the budding journalists I know from entering the field that I have enjoyed for many years.  It's true that journalism as a career has changed a great deal, and there are not a whole lot of ready-made jobs waiting for graduates.  But I still think that, with persistence and savvy, a talented, determined young journalist can make it.  In fact, I know of quite a number who have done just that.

And if they do, they'll have far more fun and do more good in journalism than in any other field I can think of. 

Twitter: @SulliView

It's World Book Night -- a "reader to reader" book giveaway that's growing, including in Buffalo

If you see people handing out paperback books today at bus stops, hospitals or on the street, chances are it's because of World Book Night.  It's an effort to get books into the hands of people who don't normally read much that began in the United Kingdom last year and has grown to the United States and Germany this year.  Here's the link to the website. 

 "Spreading the love of reading, person to person" is its motto, and author Anna Quindlen its American honorary chairwoman.

Buffalo is taking part, with the help of Jonathon Welch at Talking Leaves Books.   His Main Street store is a clearinghouse for nearly 400 books.  (The books are provided by their publishers; authors are not collecting royalties on the donated books.)

"It's an opportunity to get people thinking about reading," Welch said. 

About 18 local volunteers are distributing 20 books each, Welch said.  Also involved are Joe and Jeanenne Petri, whose Westside Stories bookstore at 205 Grant St., between Auburn and Lafayette, will be one location for the giveaways this evening.  

Some of the titles that will be given away in Buffalo are John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany," Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Kate DiCamillo's "Because of Winn-Dixie," Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," Robert Goolrick's "The Reliable Wife," and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." 

Those are great choices -- each one of them engaging, provocative and likely to promote good conversation with other readers.  

In a month when Project Flight and The Buffalo News are collecting thousands of books for the annual Books for Kids drive, this new effort creates some great synchonicity. 

Here's a story on the nationwide effort from USA Today.  

It's too late for local volunteers to get involved this year in World Book Night, but Welch is hoping the event will be an annual one in Buffalo and will be grow next year.

Is the Vatican treating American nuns with the respect they deserve?

Some of the most influential figures in my life have been nuns.

 Foremost, there was my aunt, Sister Margaret Mary, a Sister of Charity, who not only had a Ph.D in Classics from Columbia University but also was the dean of students at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx.  Talk about a role model!

 Then there were the Sisters of St. Joseph at Our Lady of Victory School in Lackawanna where my brothers and I attended grade school -- great teachers and intelligent, thoughtful women.

 Later, when my children attended St. Mark's School, the leadership and drive of Sister Jeanne Eberle made that school exemplary in many ways.

I also have tremendous respect for some of the sisters who I've come to know in their leadership roles in Buffalo higher education: Sister Denise Roche at D'Youville and Sister Margaret Carney at St. Bonaventure, in particular.

So, I think very highly of the nuns I've known personally.  And I'm more than a little uncomfortable with the Vatican's recent move to restrain what it calls the "radical feminism" of the group that represents most of the nuns in America.  

I'd love to hear from readers on this subject, either in comments here or in any of the following ways:

Twitter: @SulliView

Here are a few links to articles around the country on this topic. 

NPR had a good summary of the Vatican's move.

  The New York Times published a strong felt but carefully worded editorial.

 And in a letter to the Times, a New Jersey reader describing herself as a lifelong Catholic, Patricia Burns, defends the nuns she feels have been unfairly characterized.

Mary Schmich, the Chicago Tribune columnist who just won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, offers this column.

Covering a 10-year-old Buffalo child's beating death, and taking it personally

Journalists are used to covering violence, tragedy and death.  But sometimes, a crime hits especially close to home and we feel personally affected.

The story of Abdi Mohamud -- the 10-year-old East Side boy who was beaten to death in the basement of his Guilford Street home -- has been especially sobering for reporters, editors and photographers in The Buffalo News newsroom.

The boy's stepfather  -- Ali Mohamed Mohamud, who has confessed to police that he beat the boy to death -- worked here at The News as a security guard.
Although he was employed not by The News but by an outside security firm, he was in our building on a regular basis.   I knew him enough to say hello and use his first name; others had had long conversations with him; he walked women editors out to their cars after they finished their night shifts.
The crime itself is almost beyond human comprehension.  Police say that the 40-year-old stepfather used duct tape to trap the fifth-grader in a chair, that he stuffed a sock in his mouth, and pulverized his skull with an 18-inch hardwood baker's rolling pin.  Then he threw a blanket over the boy's body and fled.

Veteran crime reporter Lou Michel has led the reporting.  Here is his most current story.  Others have pitched in, and News columnist Donn Esmonde has a particularly strong column today, based on conversations with the boy's friends and neighbors.  They have relied on what we call "shoe-leather reporting" -- going out to the neighborhood to find those who knew the family and the situation.  As a result, their stories have delved beneath the surface and provided detail and emotion beyond the mere facts from police.

Michel's story today reports that the police came to the Guilford Street home 16 times since the family moved there in 2009.  Esmonde reports that many people knew what was going on.    Our coverage also includes the state's child abuse hotline information.

Some of us are wondering about a system that lets this happen, and what can be done about it.  We're planning to keep digging.  At the very least, we owe that much to Abdi Mohamud and other children like him for whom home is a terribly dangerous and frightening place.

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