By Matt Sledge | NOLA.com | March 28, 2021
Courts in New Orleans built up a huge case backlog during the coronavirus pandemic — and Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams started slashing it during his first month in office, according to recently-released statistics.
Williams dismissed 415 old cases and accepted roughly 227 new ones from Jan. 11-Feb. 11, according to a press release and office records.
Fifty-five percent of the cases dismissed were “narcotics-related,” the District Attorney’s Office said, a pattern that aligned with Williams’ campaign pledge to toss out low-level drug charges in order to focus on crimes of violence.
The charges dismissed also included domestic abuse and gun charges, which drew concern from some observers.
The statistics don’t cover cases that ended in plea agreements, a practice that increased in recent months as the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court returned to a more typical pace after a year of pandemic-related slowdowns.
The rate of pleas could accelerate. With the Criminal District Courthouse closed for air conditioning maintenance the past week, prosecutors and the Orleans Public Defenders spent hours haggling over potential plea agreements.
Some criminal justice system stakeholders say a slimmer docket could smooth operations when the criminal court does finally settle on a plan to resume jury trials.
“Every day, we have been working to clear the court’s docket to ensure the court is not bogged down with minor matters to provide increased capacity for attention to serious offenses,” Williams said in a statement.
Which cases were dropped?
Many of the cases dropped by Williams were growing stale, according to his office. Roughly 65% were more than two years old.
None of the charges dismissed in Williams’ first month were for crimes that carry a sentence of life without parole, according to a list of 705 charges dismissed provided by his office. Individual cases can involve multiple charges.
At least 120 of the charges dismissed were for marijuana possession or distribution.
During the campaign last fall, Williams touted dropping or diverting drug possession cases as a way of cleaning up the court docket. Getting rid of those cases, he argues, allows prosecutors to focus on more urgent issues like gun violence.
The relatively uncontroversial pot charges were just a fraction of the charges dropped. The list also includes 58 domestic abuse or violence charges.
Seven domestic charges were transferred from Municipal Court to Criminal District Court. Others were dismissed for a smattering of other reasons, but the majority, 32, were dropped because a victim signed off on the dismissal, refused to prosecute or failed to show in court.
Those scenarios are all too common, advocates say. Victims may remain in relationships with their abusers or depend on them to support their children, putting social and financial pressure on them to halt a prosecution.
As a member of the New Orleans City Council, Williams criticized former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for dismissing large numbers of misdemeanor domestic violence cases. Cannizzaro said that when victims refused to cooperate, his hands were often tied.
In a statement, Williams said some dismissed cases were more than two years old and accusers had received little to no follow-up contact from the District Attorney’s Office.
”We have hired new lawyers to serve on a backlog task force who have endeavored to reach out to these survivors and many of the complainants have since requested that the accused not be prosecuted,” Williams said. “In some instances, cases are dismissed and in other more serious instances we have placed individuals in diversion or moved forward with prosecution. Domestic violence cases are complicated and require much more attention than typical cases because of the inter-personal family dynamics.”
One victim advocate said she hasn’t seen cause for alarm so far. Mary Claire Landry, executive director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, said she’s been encouraged by her discussions with the Williams administration, including a promise to embed more staffers at her office.
Another longtime advocate in Louisiana, Kim Sport, said she worries any time batches of domestic violence cases are dropped. “These are egregious acts against victims who are usually terrified to face their offenders in court,” Sport said.
Sport said prosecutors in New Orleans and elsewhere should adopt creative approaches to trying crimes even without a cooperative accuser. In his statement, Williams said he’s already taking that tack, “by shifting the strategy from simply witness testimony to more evidence-based prosecutions.”
Meanwhile, 45 charges dismissed were for crimes like illegal carrying of a weapon, carrying of a gun by a felon or having a gun with illegal drugs. Such arrests are often a high priority for New Orleans Police Department patrol officers.
Fifteen of the weapons charges were dropped because the office lacked the testimony to prove a crime, the charges weren’t suitable for prosecution or the accused had a good defense, according to office records. Others were dismissed because the defendant died.
For five charges, defendants remain in legal jeopardy because their cases were transferred to Criminal District Court or U.S. District Court, or they have other pending cases.
However, records list the reason for dismissing 18 charges as “interest of justice,” a catch-all term.
“Interest of justice is based on the facts as they exist today with the current position or input of the victim, if any, and the criminal record of the accused, or lack thereof, warrants a dismissal,” Williams said in a statement. “This has become particularly crucial in light of the bloated dockets brought on by the high acceptance rate and the COVID-19 backlog.”
While old weapons charges were dismissed, new charges are also stacking up in the court system. The majority of new cases accepted during Williams’ first month were “weapons-related,” according to his office.
The number of weapons charges that were dismissed outright rather than placed into diversion concerned Rafael Goyeneche, the president of the private non-profit Metropolitan Crime Commission and a prosecutor under former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. He worried that the practice could feed into the alarming rise in shootings and gun homicides that happened last year.
“This is a grand experiment and only time will tell how this experiment plays out,” Goyeneche said. “I think that you are taking real risks with the public and public safety.”
‘Plea week’ tackles backlog
Williams didn’t answer a question about how many open felony and misdemeanor cases face his office nearly three months into his tenure compared to the day he took office.
“Given the activity of the court’s docket, this number is always changing. Our focus is on moving through cases in an effective, timely manner to ensure efficiency in our criminal legal system,” he said.
But out-of-court activity could ease the judicial logjam. Over the past week, prosecutors met with the Orleans Public Defenders to hammer out plea deals.
Cannizzaro sometimes held “plea days” where he made rapid-fire offers to defense attorneys in individual sections of court. But what’s been called “plea week” is a much larger enterprise involving hundreds of cases, according to Derwyn Bunton, chief of the Orleans Public Defenders.
Section by section, case by case, prosecutors and public defenders went over the facts and pitched each other on resolutions. The talks took place over Zoom video conference, Bunton said. Williams’ office didn’t answer a question about how many cases were resolved this week.
The negotiations didn’t involve judges, who can still reject plea agreements when defendants appear in court.
Bunton would still like Williams to go further by dismissing wholesale swaths of old or low-level cases. But he saw “plea week” as a good start.
“From a systemic standpoint, it is good for us to be able to move cases for our clients and our community if that inventory is knocked down by the time we begin opening court and having full access to court procedure,” he said.