Earlier this month, the Times-Picayune published a remarkable guest column by Emily Maw, the director of the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO). Responding to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s angry public complaints about city officials slashing his budget, Ms. Maw explained that “one might have sympathy for his concern” had he “not spent years deploying his senior staff to tilt at windmills.” Her articulate and compelling letter underscores five examples:
- “Assigning at least 11 senior prosecutors over two years to prosecute defense investigator, Taryn Blume.” His office finally dropped the charges last month, and the DA’s efforts appeared retaliatory from the start.
- “Making his appeal lawyers defend Alden Morgan’s 99-year sentence without parole for armed robbery with arguments the Louisiana Supreme Court characterized as a ‘waste of taxpayer time.’” The Court overturned Morgan’s sentence in October last year.
- “Prosecuting Jerome Morgan after his 1994 murder conviction was vacated in 2014 based on evidence making it virtually impossible that Morgan was the shooter at a 1993 Sweet 16 party.” Cannizzaro only stopped pushing the case some two-and-a-half years after Morgan’s conviction was overturned.
- “Defending Robert Jones’ 1996 rape, robbery and murder convictions for 10 years after Jones alerted the DA that his own office’s files might corroborate his innocence. The files did, but Cannizzaro’s prosecutors apparently never reviewed them and continued defending indefensible convictions.”
- “Prosecuting Hakim Shabazz and Kevin Johnson—two gainfully employed, 40-year-old fathers—for perjury for testifying to undo the wrongful 1994 conviction of Jerome Morgan.” Both men were acquitted at trial.
The letter echoes a theme we have sounded here before: that the Orleans Parish District Attorney defends convictions that are fundamentally flawed and pursues unsubstantiated charges.
Ms. Maw’s letter is remarkable not only in its persuasiveness, but also in its providence. For years, IPNO attempted to work productively with Cannizzaro’s office. In August of 2014, the DA publicly proclaimed during his annual “State of the Criminal Justice System” address that he had created a new “conviction integrity unit” that would represent a joint effort between his office and IPNO. We have long expressed skepticism about these sorts of units, “recognizing the ways in which these units too often function as political cover for obstructionist DAs or a tool for garnering credit for work that they ought to be doing anyway.” Yet Ms. Maw and IPNO hung in there for over a year. Even when the unit collapsed in January of 2016, Ms. Maw conveyed disappointment but spared Cannizzaro blame: “We tried some things. It didn’t work out. I wish it had . . . . Maybe it wasn’t the right time.” As a result, her letter from earlier this month comes with the crushing weight of hard-earned credibility: “[Cannizzaro] is the elected official version of a teenager who spent all his allowance on cigarettes and X-box games. We wouldn’t have sympathy when that kid complains he has no money for gas to drive to work.”
At bottom, Ms. Maw’s letter makes clear a reality that prosecutors far too often obfuscate: prosecutorial decisions implicate public resources. Not just the DA’s budget, which may be the first place to look, but also downstream and across the entire criminal justice system. Cannizzaro has exploited the wide discretion given to his office to intimidate defense attorneys and their investigators, pursue marginal cases even in the face of compelling evidence of innocence, punish witnesses who testify for defendants, ramp up habitual offender charges at an unparalleled rate, transfer juveniles into the adult system at a head-spinning pace, and withhold exculpatory evidence, while decrying both efforts to restrain his budget and give police discretion to charge fewer petty crimes like marijuana possession. These choices have come at great cost, both monetary and human.
Consider, for example, the Orleans DA’s overreliance on the State’s habitual offender law. In 2015 Cannizzaro’s office took advantage of its ability to “multiple bill” defendants on 154 occasions. In contrast, in East Baton Rouge Parish—which has a larger population than Orleans Parish—the DA used it only three times. And while Cannizzaro claims that crime in New Orleans is exceptional, a recent decision from the Louisiana Fourth Circuit reveals how recklessly the DA wields his power. Cannizzaro’s office used the habitual offender statute to send Walter Johnson to life without the possibility of parole for stealing $15 out of a police-monitored “bait” car with its window down. The appellate court struck down the sentence: “We cannot condone a sentence which condemns Mr. Johnson to a life—and inevitable death—within prison walls, in light of his non-violent criminal history and the extraordinarily minor crime in this case.” Not only does the outcome underscore how the DA’s abuse of discretion will require even more resources to resolve Mr. Johnson’s case in particular, but it also brings light to how willing Cannizzaro is to seek costly punitive sentences in the least aggravated cases.
Despite evidence suggesting that treating juveniles as adults is more likely to promote recidivism, Cannizzaro has labeled efforts to let the juvenile court system attempt rehabilitation of juvenile offenders “dangerous.” Research has revealed that the Orleans DA sends 15 and 16 year-old defendants into adult court at a far higher rate than all other DA offices in Louisiana. And this says nothing about the incarceration and societal costs Cannizzaro’s charging practices entail. A 2015 report by the Phillips Black Project found that over the preceding five years, Orleans Parish sent more children to serve life-without-parole sentences than any other county in the country except Los Angeles—and Los Angeles County’s population is more than 20 times larger than that of Orleans.
Using limited resources wisely is the District Attorney’s responsibility. But, rather than charging crimes carefully, pursuing convictions on the basis of hard evidence, litigating appeals judiciously, and seeking reasonable punishments, Cannizzaro has done the opposite. Cannizzaro’s agenda is one directional: more charges, more convictions, more punishment. In short: Mass Incarceration 101. Evidently, these are not the prosecutorial prerogatives of a bygone era in New Orleans, at least not yet. While he expends precious time and resources on the criminal justice equivalent of cigarettes, Ms. Maw reminds us “good people are losing years of their lives to Mr. Cannizzaro’s poor choices.”