By Jillian Kramer | | July 9, 2022

Revolutionaries and martyrs look down from the walls of Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams’ office: An innocent 14-year-old Black boy who was boosted on books to fit into the electric chair that killed him. An abolitionist deemed unhinged for taking up arms to fight slavery. A writer whose radical denunciation of racism both roused and disappointed.

“I can really relate to how perceptions sometimes change when a person’s heart or intent hasn’t,” Williams said as he pointed to the portrait of that writer, James Baldwin.

There is another picture absent here that hangs in Williams’ Uptown home: a campaign poster bearing Williams’ visage pierced with arrows, the Saint Sebastian of New Orleans with a five o’clock shadow and better shoes. In this image, created by an artist before Williams won the 2020 district attorney’s race, the politician is a target, wounded but still standing.

A passionate student of civil rights movements, Williams cultivated the image of a persecuted Black reformer on the campaign trail and New Orleans voters responded. A progressive coalition bought into his vision of prosecutorial reform, and upon taking office, he delivered it.

But the seismic changes have been overshadowed by a crime wave that galvanized his critics and retrenchments on some campaign promises that disappointed a number of supporters.

It’s a familiar story for reform-minded prosecutors across the U.S. whose determination to build a better criminal justice system collided with a pandemic crime spike. In June, San Francisco voters recalled their progressive prosecutor, Chesa Boudin, after two and a half years in office.

Williams faces a different and more personal peril. In one week, a dozen jurors from across the region will be tasked with deciding whether he’s a chronic tax cheat or a target of unjust prosecutors himself. Their verdict could change the course of his career and the criminal justice system in New Orleans.

The moment, Williams said, “feels historically consistent with what has happened to people who have tried to change failing systems. I can’t call it a broken system, because I think it’s operating exactly how it’s designed to operate. But I think we can build a better system.”

Shots taken

In 2020, the longtime defense attorney fought along a bitter campaign trail, positioning himself as an antidote to outgoing District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and brawling with opponent Keva Landrum, one of his closest friends and a former prosecutor backed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Williams won handily in a runoff election, even under the specter of a federal indictment for alleged tax evasion.

He quickly set in motion his progressive vision for the office. He sought to shape an elite team of prosecutors who would treat everyone fairly. And he created a civil rights division, ever endeavoring to right past wrongs.

But he entered the bland and beige district attorney’s building on South White Street to find cases stored in unlabeled wax-sealed seafood boxes stacked 6 feet tall, a disorganized backlog built up from the pandemic and a stunted criminal court system.

More than a year after taking office, his team was in court, with Williams taking the unusual step of prosecuting high-profile cases himself. He’s gone to trial three times, often with his mother watching quietly in the back row. With his storytelling, theatrical style — defense attorney John Fuller has called it “must watch TV” — Williams has won each case he’s prosecuted.

In the background, however, crime surged in New Orleans and across the country. Carjackings and homicides soared in New Orleans, with some data indicating the city is on pace to become the murder capital of the U.S. this year.

With each violent crime, Williams’ detractors have grown louder. His preoccupation with the past, they admonish, has stolen resources away from prosecuting new crimes and emboldened criminals.

“I think that if there was an election today, there would be a very different turnout,” said Rafael Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

All the while, the most lethal arrow has yet to be loosed: On July 18, in the Hale Boggs federal courthouse at Camp and Poydras streets, Williams will fight charges that he swindled the federal government out of taxes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, facing a lineup of government witnesses that includes Cannizzaro and some of Williams’ former law partners.

Should he be found guilty of even one of the 10 charges against him, Williams will lose his law license and be forced from office.

Civil rights student

Williams, 49, moves through his slate gray office with the grace earned through years as a child ballet dancer. He repainted the walls within days of his inauguration, with each stroke exorcising the ghosts of sometimes law-breaking prosecutors past who sought wins at all costs.

Where certificates of merit and department-store paintings once hung, radicals now reside. “This is all of our history,” said Williams, pointing to portraits of James Baldwin, executed child George Stinney and fiery abolitionist John Brown. “We don’t all rely on it for energy during tired or challenging moments. But it does that for me.”

Williams’ ardor for civil rights permeates his life. His office is filled with antiques, many relics of the Confederate and Jim Crow eras — a decades-old scale weighed down with advocacy pins, a ballot box from a time when Black people couldn’t vote. Historical and socially-minded tomes tower to the top of 14-foot ceilings in his home study. He talks so routinely about historical figures with his children during dinners that his wife, Liz Marcell Williams, often chides him to stop lecturing them, his thoughts too dense and pedantic to allow them to join the conversation.

His passion is reflected in his effort to remake the district attorney’s office: He banned prosecutors from invoking the state’s habitual offender statute, a harsh prosecutorial tool routinely wielded by his predecessors that led to the lock up of more people than any other Louisiana parish, and mandated a screening process that weighs the trauma of a defendant alongside their alleged crimes. He turned prosecutors’ focus away from the most minor offenses and toward violent crimes. His civil rights division includes nine staff members who have championed the exoneration of nine people and the release of 60 New Orleanians convicted by non-unanimous juries.

“The work that the civil rights division has done in correcting past wrongs cannot be compared to any other justice reform efforts made in any other fashion in Louisiana,” said Andrew Hundley, executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project, an organization that advocates for and assists in the release of prisoners serving long sentences.

Williams is “man who can hold many truths at once, and who is trying to forge a solution from what seemed to be conflicting realities, that is honest and sometimes hard, but that has never really been tried before” in New Orleans, said Emily Maw, chief of the civil rights division.

Asked what led him along a civil-rights minded path, one that inspired him to revolutionize the district attorney’s office, Williams shares a story he told his wife the day they met in 2013 at the Norman C. Francis Leadership Institute.

In the civil rights movement, in the Ku Klux Klan hot spot of Bogalusa, Williams’ uncles took up arms to protect activists and neighbors from violence, then returned home to their farms, wearing overalls, tending chickens, playing with their children — “a shining example of how ordinary people can do extraordinary things when it’s required,” he said. “I feel like we all at some point will have a moment or a year where we will have to step up and do something really hard.”

Has Williams had this calling?

“This is it,” he said. “Saying that the criminal legal system is bloated with things, with cases, that weren’t going to make us safer, it absolutely has made me a target for some. I have no regrets. But it ain’t easy.”

Bitter battles

Marcell Williams sits in her study, beneath her husband’s campaign poster. The cartoon-esque riffs off an iconic 1968 Esquire magazine cover that depicted Muhammad Ali shot with six arrows in the wake of his own crucible. At the time, the icon was suffering the slings of a displeased and deeply suspicious public.

“With the indictment and the ugliness of the campaign,” Marcell Williams said, “that really spoke to him.”

Just before Williams formally announced his bid for the office, a grand jury indicted him on nearly a dozen tax fraud charges. Prosecutors allege that the then-city council president and defense attorney had reduced his tax burden by more than $200,000 with the help of his former law partner, Nicole Burdett, and a tax preparer who last year pleaded guilty to making a false tax return.

Williams has steadfastly claimed the indictment was politically motivated, a targeted attempt to keep a Black man promising progressive change from ascending into the prosecutor’s office.

“I think they thought by trying to destroy my reputation, they could scare me from wanting to take on the challenge of reforming a system and making it fairer,” Williams said.

But Goyeneche, one of Williams’ most vocal critics, scoffs. “He isn’t a target because of who he is or his political philosophies,” he said. “He’s a target because of what he allegedly did.”

With success in reshaping the district attorney’s office scuffed with the rise in crime, critics grow louder. Some allies are disappointed. He’s lost dear friends, including Landrum, a former law-school study partner he once vowed he’d never oppose. They no longer speak.

“I’ve moved on,” said Landrum, declining an interview request.

Even as he recognizes many of Williams’ prosecutorial policies as “revolutionary,” Orleans Public Defenders Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton points to problems under Williams’ watch.

Williams broke with a campaign promise to never charge juveniles as adults, and his more intensive case screening process often leaves the accused waiting longer to learn whether they’ll be formally charged. Bunton described a handful of “heavy-handed” prosecutors who still threaten to invoke the state’s habitual offender statute, despite Williams’ edict against it.

“We still have a long way to go in our criminal legal system before we can call it just or equal, or equitable, or fair,” Bunton said.

An uncertain future

When Williams awakes in the middle of the night — as the crime surge or his office’s case load creeps into his subconscious mind — he sneaks downstairs from his second-story bedroom to watch crime dramas: “Forensic Files,” “Broadchurch,” or “Anatomy of a Scandal.”

“Once we get to bed, Jason has a whole Netflix life I don’t know about,” Marcell Williams said.

He may also be restless as he awaits his trial. His wife, too, thinks about it often.

“It’s surreal,” said Marcell Williams. “There’s an emotional response. There’s shame. There’s embarrassment. I realize myself how quickly I will assign guilt to someone who stands accused of something without actually having allowed the full justice system process to unfold.”

The possibility of Williams’ ouster threatens the larger reform movement in New Orleans, said Majeeda Snead, head of the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic at Loyola University. Residents fearful of increased crime might be more apt, she said, to vote for a tough-on-crime contender, believing Williams’ less punitive approach encouraged criminal activity.

But Williams bristles at the idea that his office’s focus on violent crimes — rather than all crimes — somehow emboldens criminals. “There’s clearly a sense that criminal justice reform, that fairness in the system, somehow equates with a criminal element thinking they can commit more crimes,” he said. “Most criminals are not watching my press conferences. So, the idea that we are influencing bad decision making is a false narrative.”

He also questions whether what’s been built will fall as quickly as some fear and others hope.

“I don’t think that the outcome of the trial will impact the legacy of the work that we did,” said Williams. “I think it will stand the test of time and show that we did it fair and we did it right.”