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Letters to the Editor – 1051

Dear Editor,
I’m giving up on my hometown.
Last year, I tried to encourage a movement to change the mascot at Caledonia schools — not because it bothers me (It doesn’t.) — but because it offends so many others with its negative connotation. No dice. Currently, I am hosting a poetry contest for students throughout Columbus and Lowndes County. The winners will receive cash scholarships and be featured in “K12 Ink,” a magazine I am publishing in February with all the entries.
Thus, I immediately sought out support from the local school districts. Again, no dice. Mr. Barnett, principal at Caledonia High School, is an adamant supporter of the effort. He was thrilled at the idea when I spoke with him last week via telephone. Messages left with the Columbus Municipal School District went unreturned from Mr. Craig Shannon’s office. I’ve played a bit of phone tag with Lynn Wright at Lowndes County School District.
I am just honestly disappointed at the lack of excitement about innovative programs created to get kids excited about school.
For those of you who are interested, the contest is open to anyone in grades 1-12 anywhere in Lowndes County, including home school, private and parochial schools.
To enter, email info.vixynvisions@gmail.com, with the subject line “Poetry Contest.” There is no limit on how many poems a student may submit; however, only one will be included in “K12 Ink” magazine. The email should include the student’s full name, home address, parents’ names, school and grade level. The deadline is Dec. 31.
Submissions are free and will be judged by a panel of five, including myself. Other panel members include June Straight, a Starkville native who works as a copyeditor and page designer for The El Paso Times, Curtis Payne, a Columbus native who is co-founder of the mentoring program Youth of Prosperity, and Stephen Onwenu, New Hope native and also co-founder of Youth of Prosperity. A fifth panelist will be selected from a local college’s English department. The contest is sponsored by Vixyn Visions marketing and event firm, which is my business, and it operates in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
As a 2001 graduate of Caledonia High School and 2006 graduate of Mississippi University for Women, it’s important for me to give back to my community. It’s just not always easy. But, as they say, a prophet is not without honor save in his own hometown.
OK, so I haven’t quite given up yet obviously. But it’s pretty discouraging this lack of support. Next year, I’m aiming at a spot on the school board in Hoover, Ala. In a couple more years, I plan to run for mayor of Hoover. I just wish I could have more of an impact in my own hometown. Perhaps it’s time to move on and call Alabama my new “Sweet Home.”
I still believe in the Golden Triangle.
Garthia Elena Halbert
Birmingham, Ala.

==============================
    The following is a letter to the editor sent to The Packet from Robert Smith Jr. in regards to an article that ran in the Commercial Dispatch after he was arrested on a misdemeanor DUI charge. The Commercial Dispatch is a Columbus-based newspaper that publishes Sunday through Friday.

Letter to the Commercial Dispatch from Robert E. Smith, Jr.
August 22, 2013
Dear Mr. Imes:
Please accept this letter as ten (10) day notice pursuant to Miss. Code Ann. §95-1-5(1) specifying the article and the statements therein which I believe are false and defamatory.

On August 8, 2013, the Commercial Dispatch in both print and online editions published an article on page 3A titled “Mayor’s son arrested for DUI.”

1.    I was never arrested for violation of probation and ordered to serve five (5) years prison time.

The first false and defamatory statement in the article is contained in the very next paragraph wherein it states: “In 1998, Smith was arrested for violation of probation and ordered to serve five years.” This statement is just plain false and untrue. I was placed on 1 year of house arrest and 2 years of probation for the charge which I was convicted (but later expunged), but I never violated the terms and conditions of my probation. In fact, I successfully completed the house arrest and probation without nay incidents, paid my fines and my debt to society. Additionally, I was never sentenced to but a three (3) year total sentence, not five (5).

After waiting five (5) years after my probation was successfully completed, I requested the charge be expunged pursuant to Mississippi Code annotated Section §99-19-71(2) which provides as follows:

(a) Any person who has been convicted of one of the following felonies may petition     the court in which the conviction was had for an order to expunge one (1) conviction     from all public records five (5) years after the successful completion of all terms     and conditions of the sentence for the conviction: a bad check offense under     Section 97-19-55; possession of a controlled substance or paraphernalia under     Section 41-29-139(c) or (d); false pretense under Section 97-19-39; larceny under     Section 97-17-41; malicious mischief under Section 97-17-67; or shoplifting under     Section 97-23-93. A person is eligible for only one (1) felony expunction under this     section.

A Circuit Judge in Lowndes County entered the expunction order pursuant to this staute like they would for any other citizen. Despite yours and apparently others fear that that nayor could use “. . .his influence in a way that perverts justice,” my father, Mayor Robert Smith, Sr., did not take any part in the expunction proceedings.

1.    I do not have more than one felony conviction which was expunged.

The article provides innuendo and another untrue fact by stating that “. . .the expungement of Smith’s felony convictions allowed him to possess a weapon.” The plural use of the word conviction implies that I have had multiple convictions when that is also false. First, I only had one conviction and second, the expunction statute only allows for one expunction of a felony conviction.

In that article, the author, Ms. Sarah Fowler, also makes that statement in the fourth paragraph that “He [Robert Smith, Jr.] was arrested in May of 1997 for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, a felony.” This statement is misleading since this was only the original charge from the arrest. Upon presentation to the Lowndes County Grand Jury (made up of citizens of Lowndes County), the charge was reduced to Possession fo Cocaine without the intent to distribute portion. However, the article written conveniently omits these facts. The article also omits the fact that the other charge for possession of cocaine was retired in my plea agreement, and I was not convicted for that charge.

In your editorial dated August 8, 2013, title “Our view: To report or not report. . .,” the editorial states: “At the Dispatch, we believe our reporting should be accurate and thorough, We are not in the business of innuendo or gossip. Above all else, we strive to be fair.” These statements ring hollow in light of the acts of defamation set forth in the previous article. It seems that the copy of the indictment in the May 1997 charge which was retired would readily show it was merely a possession charge and no distribution element was charged. Further, I have no idea where the author got the idea that I was arrested for violation of probation and ordered to serve prison time. A simple inquiry to the Miss. Department of Corrections or the Lowndes County Circuit Clerk would have cleared this matter up immediately. Third the use of the plural word created the innuendo that I had multiple convictions, which also was false and could also be cleared up by checking the public records.

I also take issue with your reporting that I had a felony conviction expunged, and such reporting is certainly is not fair journalism since it provides publicity of an expunged conviction which could not otherwise be discovered easily (the purpose of expunctions). This public report could have far reaching implications on my employment prospects and reputation in this community since it dredges up “old news” to drag me and my family through the mud, and the old charges had absolutely nothing to do with the current charge.

Please print an immediate retraction of the fact that I did not violate my probation and was not ordered to serve five years and that I only had one conviction which was expunged. I would appreciate if you would publish this retraction in a similar manner as the original reporting. Additionally, I would like a public explanation of the reasonable grounds your publication had for believing these inaccurate statements were true. I believe that a review of the public records (and the nonpublic records which you apparently accessed) would show that there was no reasonable basis for the claim that I was ordered to serve five years in prison or that I had had multiple convictions. Relying merely on word of mouth is not responsible journalism, but just repeating gossip. If you can provide no reasonable basis for these claims, I and your readers are owed an apology for unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate reporting.
Sincerely,
Robert E. Smith, Jr.

Cc:     The Columbus Packet
Mr. Slim Smith, Managing Editor
Ms. Sarah Fowler

     The Dispatch declined to comment on this letter when contacted via email Wednesday.
     It is worth noting that Mr. Smith is being a bit inconsistent when he mentions the part about arrested for one thing and then charged with another. The article in question did mention only that he was arrested for a certain charge(which he was), and was not a full on investigative piece into every detail of how each charge was processed from beginning until end-CK

(The Packet spoke with Robert Smith Jr. through his attorney, William Starks. The following are the questions that were asked and Smith’s responses.)

   Have you or your attorney spoken with anyone from The Commercial Dispatch in person about this matter?
Before sending the letter, I [Robert] spoke with the reporter, the managing editor and publisher.   I was told they stood behind the story 100% and the facts they put in it and were not changing it.   After sending the letter, my attorney was contacted by the reporter and appeared to be investigating the matters raised in the letter by reviewing the court files at the courthouse.   I have not heard anything further.

 Did the reporter say where she had received her alleged erroneous information?
The reporter stated she received some of her information from Teresa Barksdale and from the Sheriff’s office.  (Teresa Barksdale told The Packet during a phone call Wednesday that she had to decline to comment per department policy.)   Upon contacting the Sheriff’s department, Chief Deputy Marc Miley stated he handled requests for information and had not received any such requests from the reporter.     Slim Smith and the reporter stated they would provide me a copy of the documents they relied upon, but then Mr. Birney Imes told me that he couldn’t give me any documents, and he stood behind the report 100% because their facts were true.
(On Wednesday, LCSO Chief Deputy Marc Miley said that Smith did come to the LCSO and asked for his records. Miley said he “absolutely did not receive a request from the Commercial Dispatch regarding Robert Smith Jr.” (CK)

Do you view the alleged erroneous reporting as a personal vendetta against you or members of your family?
Yes, I believe it is political and an attempt to smear my father, the mayor.  When you bring up incidents from 16 years ago, it is clear that this was merely a character assassination attempt.   I believe that this publicity could certainly cause me to have difficulty in this area in obtaining employment in the future.

    Do you plan to pursue this matter in court?
I have not made that decision yet, but may have to do so to ensure accurate reporting.

    What outcome would you like to see?
I would like to see a retraction in the Dispatch of the untrue facts. I also would like for them to explain the source of their false information. Additionally, I would like to see fair and accurate reporting in the future by the Dispatch, not hiding behind sources they will not reveal. I hope that others are not subjected to this type of gossip tabloid news in the future.

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