Written by Sarah Holtz, Interview by David Benedetto
Our Volunteer of the Month is Linda Bizzarro, retired prosecutor, traveler and the voice of WRBH’s Friday edition of the Wall Street Journal! Check out the full interview recording below:
How long have you been reading at WRBH and how did you find out about us?
I actually began reading when I first came to New Orleans in 1977. I had come from New York to go to law school, and I was reading what was then called an alternative newspaper, I think it was The Figaro. I read about the radio station, which had just been forming then. Wanting to get engaged in the community, I called up and had an interview.
As I recall it was a very small office then, somewhere over by Children’s Hospital, and I was a little intimidated. You know, you had to have instructions and press buttons and wear earphones, but I loved it. It was really fascinating. Unfortunately I had underestimated the amount of time I needed to spend on my law studies, so I had to abandon some of the things I’d begun reading for the station, but it always stayed in the back of my mind, and I listened often. Flash-forward thirty-five years, when I retired, it was definitely one of the things I wanted to do. By coincidence, I met the station manager, Natalia Gonzalez, and we began chatting so I came back and here I am.
What did you first read here when you started back in ’77?
Oh, anything! There were magazines. There were newspapers. And if I’m not mistaken it was live then. I’m not sure there was the recorded element, so that was a little challenging.
So you came down to New Orleans for law school in 1977. Why New Orleans of all places?
I was living in New York and working at the time, and as for many women, I met a man who was a lawyer and had gone to law school here. He loved New Orleans, and he was having a wonderful career as a criminal defense attorney. Well, that intrigued me. He told these wonderful stories and many victories — of course according to him – but I really felt he was doing important work, and unfortunately he was a total egomaniac. So I discovered that I didn’t want to be with this man or marry him but I wanted to be him, have a wonderful career, and do it in an interesting place. He had also told me that Loyola Law School at this time in the Seventies was apparently one of the few in the country at that time that had a law clinic where your last year of law school you were allowed to actually go into court to defend cases with supervision. That definitely appealed to me too. So I took the necessary tasks – applied, made it down to New Orleans, went to Loyola, and loved it. I made it through law school successfully and in the clinic. And I actually did well there!
I know you started wanting to be a defense attorney and moved onto being a prosecutor.
Well, to continue the saga, things have changed, but at that time when you went into the law clinic the only cases that you could handle were criminal defense cases. So I was very gung ho – I was going to free all these people that I believed had been wrongfully persecuted. So I had a number of cases that semester – probably four or five, which was a lot for a student – and I began to realize after the end of that experience, that everyone I had represented was guilty. And in fact, very much so, with criminal records and everything else. My whole goal here was to be helpful, to do something meaningful, to help people, and I just came to the conclusion that for me I was on the wrong side of this equation. I had cross-examined many victims and seen many sad stories, and it was just an epiphany. I said, “This is not what I want to do – I want to be a prosecutor.” So I then literally marched across the street from Tulane and Broad, to Harry Connick’s office – he was the DA then – was located and asked for a job and got it and never looked back. It was a great decision for me, and led to a wonderful career.
My whole legal career, about 35 years, I started in the DA’s office, which was just a tremendous experience. That’s the ER room of criminal work and prosecution. Then I moved on to the federal system, and had a little more complicated cases, which I also enjoyed. Eventually I wound up in Washington, D.C. on an assignment for several years, which is actually where I was when Katrina struck, and returned home after that. So prosecution was definitely something I was meant for.
Do you have any memorable cases you could share with us?
I do indeed. In fact, I actually had a book written about one, which I was honored to read on the station. It was early in my career, in 1981. There was a horrible rape that had occurred up at the Fly, at Audubon Park near the river. A young woman with her boyfriend, his brother, and a friend were up there on a very sultry night in New Orleans enjoying the river – wonderful young people, college students, just minding their own business. Another man came by in a truck and stopped them all and had a gun. He perpetrated a horrible rape on the woman, robbed the young men, beat them, and stole from all of them, and left. Just a horrible case.
It took an interesting turn when he was arrested, however, because we found later that he was clearly high on some substance. And he went on a bit of a spree after leaving these young people at Audubon Park. He went down Magazine Street, committed several armed robberies on two or three people, and eventually wound up breaking into a woman’s house – or stopping her, I should say – and forcing her into her home. Well, she was a very feisty, streetwise woman, who had just come off of her bar job in the Quarter, and was pretty savvy about assessing a situation, and so she just began chatting with this guy, who was clearly to her high. She anticipated what was going to happen, and so she said, “You really look hot and tired. How long have you been here?” And she was really just talking wildly, she said, “Why don’t we have a beer at least before you do whatever you’re going to do – how about a nice cold beer?” And she got him to agree to this. She went to the refrigerator where she had a six-pack of beer frozen that she recalled, came back to the table when she had a break, whacked him in the head, apprehended him. The police came so it was a very sad case with a bit of a twist that was amazing in terms of apprehending this guy. And of course the trial was equally balanced with sadness and a little bit of humor about that story.
So it was a great case –I was very relieved to convict him and get him off the streets. As I said there was ultimately a book written about it by one of the victims, which I read on the station – Where The River Bends by Barry Raine – great book, he did a good job of really talking about the whole incident. So if there are any filmmakers listening out there, I recommend this book, it’s a great story and very well told about New Orleans.
What’s your favorite place to go in the city?
You know, there’s so much I love about New Orleans, and some of my favorite things are all the live music that’s around. I go to a lot of the venues and I love the opera, I love the chamber music (The Friends of Music), and City Park has music on Thursdays. I love rock music at Rock ‘n’ Bowl, Chickie Wah Wah, any place there’s live music I’m thrilled and I really love to go to any place – of which there are so many as you know.
Are there any specific concerts that stand out in your mind?
Yes, there was one at the LPO, where the soloist was supposed to be a clarinetist from Europe somewhere, or South America, and Carlos Miguel Prieto came out and announced in the middle of the concert that this soloist was ill. He was due to play this wonderful piece and he said, we’re going to take a break – clearly to figure out what was going to happen. My apologies if I get any of these names wrong but when he came back on stage, there was a young clarinetist in the orchestra who agreed to step up a play this piece! And I mean your heart just went out to this man, who was so brave and so good. It was incredible that he apparently hadn’t rehearsed but like anybody that was there remembers that it was definitely a high point in classical music in New Orleans.
I also know that you are traveling very soon. I was wondering where you’re going and what you looking forward to doing?
Well, I have two trips that we’re planning. One is at the end of the month in August to go to Santa Fe, because they have a chamber music festival. So I think that’s a very lovely venue to hear that kind of music. And then I hope in October to go to Europe to see some friends in France but also to go to Vienna in Austria, where I have never been. So I’m traveling with a friend and we’re both going for the opera. He’s going for the opera and the wine, I’m going for the opera and the pastries.
What is your favorite book, or what are you reading right now?
You know, I don’t do as much reading as I should or would like to. As you know, when I read at the station, I have some vision problems, which is why I appreciate this station so much, and I usually prop up the e-reader on six books so it’s eye level, so recreational reading is a bit difficult. I did recently read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When he died last year he came to my attention again, even though I had know of him, and I read that book and it was very impressive. It’s such a lovely lyrical story. His writing is so descriptive, and I liked it so well and I then went and rented the DVD, which I also liked! So I would say at least at the moment that’s my favorite book.