Orleans district attorney promises restoration of faith in criminal justice system

Posted on Jan 20, 2010 in Courts, Local Issues


By Gwen Filosa, The Times-Picayune
January 19, 2010, 8:49PM
leon-cannizzaro-speech.JPGTed Jackson / The Times-Picayune’We must be willing to think differently today, to work together to build a more modern system,’ District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Tuesday.

Prosecutors and police will continue restoring the public’s faith in the criminal justice system by joining forces and reaching out to vulnerable victims and witnesses, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said in a speech Tuesday that laid claim to making significant strides in his first year in office and proposed specific institutional changes at the local courthouse.

“To the criminal element, let me say, ‘We are back in business and we never close,” Cannizzaro said to applause during his first State of the Criminal Justice System address delivered at Gallier Hall that attracted top officials from the city’s Police Department, along with U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and FBI Special Agent in Charge David Welker.

“To the community at large, I make this plea: If you see or, God forbid, are a victim of crime, please report it,” said Cannizzaro, who hired a team of counselors and social workers to help guide victims and witnesses through the prosecution process. “Our victim and witnesss assistance program can help you. We cannot be effective without the trust and cooperation of the community.”

He added a caveat to anyone who intimidates a victim or witness: “I promise to pursue you equally as hard as the criminal you are attempting to protect.”

Cannizzaro, a 22-year veteran judge at Criminal District Court and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, was elected by 62 percent of the vote Nov. 4, 2008, and took office weeks later.

“When I got here, the office was suffering,” Cannizzaro said. “And not only was the entire criminal justice system under siege, the public’s confidence in the system was nonexistent. For the past year, I have refused to accept the status quo. We must be willing to think differently today, to work together to build a more modern system. We must reject the attitude that change is bad simply because we have always done the same things in a certain way.”

Cannizzaro cited statistics that about 14 months later show his office is prosecuting more cases and assisting six times more victims and witnesses than his predecessors, Eddie Jordan, who took office in 2002 and resigned amid scandal by October 2007, and Harry Connick, whose 29-year tenure ended in 2002 when he chose not to run again.

“In 2002, the DA’s office refused 49 percent of the cases brought to it by NOPD,” he said. “In 2008, the DA’s office was still refusing 39 percent of cases brought to it by police. Last year, the office accepted more than 86 percent of the cases brought in.”

Better communication and cooperation between NOPD and the DA’s office has already produced “substantial results,” Cannizzaro said.

Cannizzaro lauded the New Orleans Police Department as “honest and dedicated front-line soldiers in our war on crime. We know that you are working hard, and we ask the community to join us in recognizing your devotion to this city.”

Before Cannizzaro took office, police officers felt stymied by the rates of refusal they were greeted with when bringing cases to the DA. “The attitude was that the office was rejecting their work without explanation,” Cannizzaro said.

Under Cannizzaro, prosecutors respond to every homicide and rape crime scene along with police, counseling services are provided to victims and witnesses, and changes have been made so that his office can concentrate on the most violent cases on the court dockets.

Cannizzaro said he has already asked the judges at Criminal District Court to adopt a rule that would change the time frame in which criminal cases are randomly allotted to the 12 trial sections at Tulane and Broad. Instead of waiting, Cannizzaro wants cases allotted to a section of court from the time of arrest, a policy change supported by the public defenders program.

Also, Cannizzaro announced Tuesday that his office wants to “sharpen its focus on murderers, rapists and robbers who are terrorizing our streets,” by clearing out nonviolent misdemeanor cases from Criminal District Court.

“We will begin transferring nonviolent misdemeanors to Municipal Court in the coming weeks,” he said, including the volume of marijuana possession cases that clog the court dockets daily. “I am not advocating for the legalization of marijuana or even the decriminalization of marijuana. I am simply advocating for a change in venue from Criminal District Court to Municipal Court.”

The Criminal District Court judges chose not to attend the DA’s speech Tuesday, after taking a vote that it would be a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct that states a judge shall avoid the appearance of impropriety in all activities.

Tuesday night at Gallier Hall was indeed a political event, attracting mayoral candidates Rob Couhig and John Georges, along with City Council Members Cynthia Willard-Lewis, Jackie Clarkson and Arnie Fielkow, who are all seeking another term; Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman, and judicial candidates running for Civil District Court and Juvenile Court.

Cannizzaro, who read the prepared speech, said, “This proposed change is not an indictment of criminal court judges, nor is it an indication that I lack faith in their administrative skills. I am attempted to ease burdens on their time so they can focus on violent crimes.

“We are bringing more violent felonies to Criminal District Court,” he said. “In the coming year, we will bring even more violent offenders to the court.”

Cannizzaro noted one double murder case from 2009 that went from arrest to conviction in less than seven months: Jackie Green, the New Orleans man found guilty of shooting dead his ex-wife and a man who was visiting her home.

“I believe that even the most serious felonies, including murders, can be brought to trial in less than 12 months rather than the years it takes presently to get these matters to trial,” he said.

He promised to install “vertical prosecution,” meaning that one prosecutor works the case from the time of arrest through trial.

Cannizzaro recognized the Rev. John Raphael of New Hope Baptist Church, a former NOPD officer for 15 years, who has spent thousands of his own dollars to reward neighborhood children for good grades. Cannizzaro said he also runs the Way Out Program to provide job training.

“Thank you, for you are truly the front line soldier in our war against crime,” Cannizzaro said. “You are a peacemaker. As Christ said in the Gospel of St. Matthew, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God.'”

Cannizzaro implored the crowd of city, state and federal leaders to “look into the eyes of the next generation of youth” in New Orleans, those children who survived the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

“Those eyes have seen enough mayhem to last two lifetimes,” he said. “If to no one else, we owe a brighter future to that generation of New Orleans. The road will be long and require reform far beyond the corner of Tulane and Broad.”

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