By Mike Perlstein | WWL-TV | May 18, 2022
The vast majority of violent felony prosecutions in New Orleans last year ended with dismissal or plea to a lesser charge, WWL-TV revealed Tuesday in its investigative report “Discounted Justice.”
The story got quite a response, and among those who reacted was New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams.
Statistics compiled by the non-profit Metropolitan Crime Commission show that in 2021, only six percent of violent felony cases in New Orleans ended in a plea of guilty as charged. Meanwhile, 47 percent of those cases were dismissed, 27 percent ended in misdemeanor plea deals, and 19 percent ended in a plea to a lesser felony charge.
“A prosecution, an arrest for a felony, that is concluded as a dismissal or a misdemeanor plea deal is a failed prosecution,” said MCC President Rafael Goyeneche.
On an appearance on “The Eyewitness News Morning Show” Wednesday, Williams did not dispute the statistics. But he said the year 2021 should be looked at differently because the COVID pandemic shut down jury trials in Orleans Parish.
“I don’t dispute the MCC’s reporting of the data. If you look at 2021 compared to 2022, 2021 is an asterisk year. The judges shut down jury trials. So we did not have a tool that other DA’s had,” Williams said.
Williams, however, did not explain how the lack of jury trials led to the low percentage of felony pleas in felony cases.
Among the cases WWL-TV highlighted was a steeply reduced plea by career criminal Horace Toppins, for shooting a New Orleans police officer who was trying to serve a domestic violence arrest warrant. Toppins was originally charged with attempted murder and a long list of other felonies, but he was allowed to plea to being a felon with a firearm and battery in exchange for a 10-year sentence. We compared that to an almost identical case settled this month in Jefferson Parish in which the cop-shooter pleaded guilty to attempted murder and got 50 years.
Williams said the comparison is flawed.
“It’s not doing an apples-to-apples comparison about what other parishes and what other DA’s had as tools, he said.
Williams also noted on the morning show that since jury trials resumed in New Orleans, he has personally tried and won guilty verdicts in three of them, something that he says no other DA in the state can match.