Heat wave, drought voted Tennessee’s top story of 2007
By KRISTIN M. HALL
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Several weeks of unrelenting heat killed more than a dozen people in Tennessee in 2007 while the accompanying drought that devastated agriculture also caused some cities to run out of water.
The weather disaster is expected to impact local economies for years to come and was chosen as the top story of 2007 by The Associated Press member newspaper editors and broadcasters.
Triple-digit temperatures in August sent hundreds to hospitals with heat-related illnesses. Cities like Memphis tried to prevent deaths by giving out air conditioning units and extending hours at senior and community centers.
To worsen problems, rainfall for the year was about 15 to 20 inches below normal across the state and meteorologists expect the drought that covered much of the Southeast to be among the worst on record.
As wells, lakes and reservoirs dried up, Gov. Phil Bredesen said the drought exposed a lack of planning and infrastructure investment in some communities.
2. The murder trial of the quiet and unassuming minister’s wife, Mary Winkler, for the shooting death of her husband drew a horde of media and spectators to the small West Tennessee town of Selmer.
Taking the stand in her defense, Winkler said her husband, Matthew, abused her physically and sexually, but she said the shotgun fired accidentally as she pointed it at him in their parsonage bedroom. The risky defense move, which included showing the jury a pair of white platform sandals Winkler said she was forced to wear, likely spared her from a lifetime behind bars. Jurors found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a much lesser crime than the first-degree murder conviction the prosecution sought.
Winkler spent only 67 days in custody following her conviction, most of the time in a mental health facility, but she will serve the rest of her three-year sentence on probation. She and her husband’s parents are in a custody fighter over the Winklers’ three young daughters.
3. The last and most anticipated public corruption trial stemming from the Tennessee Waltz federal sting sent well-known Memphis politician John Ford to federal prison for 5 1/2 years.
The former state senator was convicted in April of taking $55,000 in bribes during a federal corruption investigation that shook the Tennessee General Assembly in 2005.
Ford, a leading member of a large, politically prominent family, spent more than 30 years in the Senate before resigning in 2005 shortly after his indictment. He won a delay in reporting to prison after arguing that locking him up would leave his youngest children without either parent since his ex-wife is in jail.
Meanwhile, former state Sens. Ward Crutchfield and Kathryn Bowers pleaded guilty in the sting and are awaiting sentencing.
4. Al Gore was on an awards streak this year. The former vice president shared the Nobel Peace Prize, helped accept the Oscar for the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and picked up an Emmy for his Current TV network.
Gore, who has long been an environmental activist, pushed the issue of global warming to the forefront this year with a series of worldwide concerts and the popular documentary. He has used the platform to urge President Bush to join global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
But all the awards in the world may not be enough to get Gore back on the campaign trail. He has repeatedly denied any interest in running for president next year.
5. Once tobacco was king in Tennessee and any attempts to restrict it went up in smoke on Capitol Hill. That changed in 2007, when Tennessee lawmakers approved two major anti-tobacco initiatives: a workplace smoking ban and tripling the tax on a pack of cigarettes to 62 cents.
While the ban allows a number of exemptions that still let smokers light up under certain circumstances, a lot of businesses and restaurants are still adjusting to the rules, which went into effect in October.
The cigarette tax may be harder on smokers, some of whom are jumping state lines to pick up cheaper cartons in neighboring states.
6. After months of speculation, Tennessee native Fred Thompson declared his candidacy for president this year, entering the campaign later than other candidates.
Despite early excitement, the candidate billing himself as the most consistent conservative in the crowded Republican field has had a slow start and been declining in polls in key early voting states.
But the senator-turned-TV actor has said he won’t be changing his political style and played down staff departures.
Thompson seeks a South Carolina victory to reverse his drop in support since September.
7. Once considered a top defensive player, Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones was suspended from the NFL after a series of arrests since he was drafted in April 2005.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Jones for the 2007 season in April, a move that followed Jones being tabbed by Las Vegas police for inciting a strip club fight that led to a triple shooting Feb. 19, leaving one man paralyzed.
Jones’ future in the NFL faces another review by league officials once the Titans’ season ends.
8. For more than 30 years — no matter which party had power — the eccentric and wily Democrat John Wilder led the Tennessee Senate with a bipartisan approach and a light touch.
But this year Republican Ron Ramsey was elected speaker after all 17 Republican senators and one Democrat supported him in an 18-15 vote.
Ramsey named Republicans to most key committee posts, completing the GOP’s takeover of the legislative process in the upper chamber.
But the GOP’s ability to stamp its imprint on major legislation was tempered when Sen. Mike Williams, a Wilder ally, left the party to become an independent.
9. The murder of a Knoxville couple, Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, in January garnered heavy attention on the Internet as some critics said national media ignored the case because of the racial implications.
Both victims were white while four suspects charged in their deaths are black. Online critics, including white supremacists, have said the killings should be considered hate crimes, but police have said they have no evidence to suggest that.
The first of the four defendants is scheduled to go to trial next year.
10. Reflecting a renewed national attention on the death penalty, Tennessee’s capital punishment system has been in a similar state of flux this year.
Convicted child-killer Daryl Holton became the first inmate to be electrocuted in the state since 1960.
Gov. Phil Bredesen suspended executions for three months to review the state’s lethal injection procedures, but a federal judge struck down Tennessee’s new procedures as cruel and unusual punishment.
A similar legal challenge will be considered next year by the U.S. Supreme Court, halting scheduled executions throughout the country.
Published in The Messenger 12.26,07