By Emily Lane & Greg Larose | WSDU | June 9, 2021
The pandemic-related backlog of cases ready for jury trial in Orleans Criminal District is “monumental,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission.
“Even more daunting than Katrina,” he added.
Orleans Criminal District Judge Camille Buras on Wednesday pushed back the trial date on the high-profile case of Cardell Hayes. He won a new trial this year when his conviction in the 2016 shooting death of New Orleans Saints player Will Smith was tossed because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring non-unanimous jury verdicts.
When giving a new trial date of Oct. 18 — the case was initially set for a July trial date — Buras noted the backlog of criminal homicide cases. There are about 20 of them ready for trial in her section, along, that have been delayed because of the pandemic. Hers is just one of twelve sections of criminal court in Orleans Parish.
“It’s going to take a while to dig out of this hole,” Goyeneche said.
Jury trials resume July 6, about 16 months after the pandemic halted them. Those delays strain prosecutors as much as the defense, Goyeneche said.
“It’s more than just scheduling for trial. It’s making sure that the witnesses, both defense and prosecution are still available. And that could add to further delays in all of this,” he said. “The longer a case sits, the more problems that evolve in that particular case. And there’s the old adage of justice delayed is justice denied.”
Data tracked by the New Orleans City Council show 176 people housed at the Orleans Justice Center jail are awaiting trial on charges of criminal homicide. And unlike Hayes, defendants who are behind bars may have a stronger case to push their trial date to the front of the line.
Goyeneche also noted the challenge of managing the backlog will be faced by a panel of a dozen judges in criminal court that includes six who are newly elected, along with a newly elected District Attorney and the natural turnover that comes with a change of leadership in that office.