By James Gill | NOLA.com | November 8, 2020
The big question in New Orleans DA’s races used to be who would do a better job of locking ’em up and throwing away the key.
In those good old days, the best way to whip the public into a fury was to explain that some defendant had gotten off on a “legal technicality.”
A judge, for instance, might disallow evidence seized in a warrantless search. The pretext for this was a legal technicality otherwise known as the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the public was not convinced it served the interests of justice.
We are not talking ancient history here. Indeed, the current DA, Leon Cannizzaro, is very much the hard-nosed, old-school prosecutor, a fan of long sentences with few hang-ups about due process. He may not have presided over as many frame-ups as his storied predecessor, Harry Connick, but nobody could call him a softie. He will be remembered for coercing witnesses with counterfeit subpoenas and having domestic violence victims jailed as material witnesses.
But times are changing and the emerging preference is for shorter prison sentences and fewer of them. And for the next few years at least, prosecutors in New Orleans will not be seeking to execute anyone. Both candidates in the upcoming runoff election so promise.
Keva Landrum and Jason Williams also say they will review cold cases in the confident expectation that further miscarriages will emerge. Prosecutorial misconduct has long been rife, presumably because it has almost always gone unpunished.
The election comes amid a spike in murders. After declining for a couple of years, the rate is back up in 2020; New Orleans will not lightly give up its reputation as one of the world’s bloodiest burgs. Nevertheless, the candidates are not promising the clamp-down that would once have seemed a logical response. Back then candidates were determined not to be accused of “coddling criminals.”
Of the current contenders, Williams seems the more likely to sympathize with criminals, if only because, according to the feds, he is one. He is due for trial on a slew of tax-evasion charges a couple of days after he or Landrum takes over as DA early in the New Year. Landrum quit as a criminal court judge to run for DA.
Williams would not be the first sitting New Orleans DA to appear as a defendant in federal court — Harry Connick was acquitted of shielding an illegal bookmaker in 1990 — but there are better ways of launching a prosecutorial career. Williams alleges that Cannizzaro, who was expected to seek reelection at the time, feared his challenge and had his political adviser, Billy Schultz, orchestrate the tax charges.
Schultz is an accomplished fixer, but the case against Williams is being handled by prosecutors from the Western District of Louisiana after the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans recused itself. The Tax Division of the Justice Department in Washington approved the charges.
It seems unlikely that the Tax Division follows New Orleans politics closely or that Schultz, who has served a short spell in federal prison for a tax violation of his own, calls any shots there.
Williams is a criminal defense attorney and, in his capacity as a member of the New Orleans City Council, has neglected no opportunity to lambaste Cannizzaro for his heavy-handed tactics. If he is elected DA, he will bring an unusual appreciation of the defense bar’s mindset to the job.
Landrum promises to establish a “civil rights division” to ensure defendants get an even break, but her career has not so far been notable for reformist zeal. She comes to the election from the opposite side of the fence to Williams, and has the advantage of prosecutorial chops.
She started out as an assistant to Connick and stuck around to become first assistant when Eddie Jordan took over. It soon became apparent that Jordan was not up to the job, and he resigned under pressure in 2007, leaving Landrum to become interim DA for 11 months. During that time, she showed she was up to the job, at least according to Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, who rated her performance “outstanding.” Of course, at the time prosecutors were still rough and tough.