By Matt Sledge | | June 16, 2021

Visibly frustrated New Orleans City Council members, under pressure to respond to high violent crime rates, held a hearing Wednesday to publicly question why a judge released on bail the man accused of later killing Portia Pollock outside her 7th Ward home, and whether her death should prompt an overhaul of the city’s unregulated ankle monitor industry.

The hearing was spurred by the arrest of Bryan Andry, the man suspected of knifing the 60-year-old physical therapist to death on June 8, and quickly turned into a sounding board for council members to express their agitation about the post-pandemic spike in murders, carjackings and other violent crimes.

Andry was jailed for most of 2020 awaiting trial on two armed robbery charges, and a newly released transcript shows that a prosecutor with District Attorney Jason Williams’ Office objected to a decision by Criminal District Judge Angel Harris to reduce his bond.

Harris went ahead anyway, while ordering Andry to wear an electronic ankle monitor upon release. But there are questions about how closely Andry was being tracked and whether his device even worked. City Councilman Jay Banks said the case has exposed “holes” in the criminal justice system.

“We have a quantified spike in crime, and it’s imperative that whatever system we have to address that works the way it’s going to work,” he said. “We can’t have it two-sided, with crime going up and then the system falling apart.”

Much of the hearing centered on the question of how to better monitor defendants out on bail, an issue that’s bedeviled the city for years.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and New Orleans Police Department used to run a joint monitoring program, but it fell apart in the mid-2010s amid disputes over its cost, manpower shortages and the high-profile 2014 slaying of a pizza delivery driver, which police blamed on two teens wearing ankle bracelets.

Since then, electronic monitoring in Orleans Parish has been left to a balkanized system of private operators who work in concert with bail bonds agencies, according to three criminal court judges who appeared before the City Council.

It’s left up to those companies to decide when to notify judges about defendants behaving badly, Judge Robin Pittman said.

“We have no contract with any of those ankle monitor companies, so we don’t know what that criteria is,” she said.

In lieu of a standardized system, Pittman said she takes it upon herself to interact with companies — even giving out her personal cellphone number. Judges said they would prefer to have either a single contract with a private operator, or a program run by a public agency that would swoop into action when defendants fail to comply with conditions of release.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has for months been working on a new electronic monitoring program. Nathaniel Weaver with the Office of Criminal Justice Coordination said the city is poised to launch that program soon, but only for juvenile defendants.

Some critics say there’s little evidence that ankle monitors reduce recidivism, while the privatized system in New Orleans has produced complaints that companies have little incentive to report violations by defendants, who must pay the companies to participate. One judge was even sued for allegedly steering defendants to a company with which he had personal and political ties.

Matt Dennis, of Assured Supervision Accountability Program LLC, argues that private companies held to tough standards can save taxpayers money and reduce recidivism. But even Dennis, an industry insider, said there was no guarantee that ankle monitors by themselves will stop violent crimes. A defendant can always cut the device off before a crime, or afterward to avoid detection, which is why it’s critical to monitor whether a defendant is violating release conditions, he said.

In Andry’s case, it appears that there were no release conditions for him to violate. The judge didn’t order him into home incarceration or assign him a curfew, according to a transcript of the bail hearing.

“If he had on an ankle monitor, he had no restrictions — so he would still have been able to walk into this neighborhood and do what he did,” said Blake Arcuri, general counsel for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Banks harshly criticized Harris’ decision to release Andry, who was facing two armed robbery charges and had previously been sentenced to a long prison term for aggravated burglary.

“There is no way any of y’all are going to tell me that this made sense,” Banks told the judges.

City Council President Helena Moreno agreed, saying: “I looked at Docketmaster, too — it goes all the way down to the floor.” Docketmaster is the court’s online record system.

Harris declined to appear at the hearing, according to Chief Judge Karen Herman, who said that judicial canons prevent her from discussing an open case. However, a transcript of the Feb. 1 bond reduction hearing provides new insight into her decision.

Harris had been on the bench for just eight weeks, after defeating incumbent Judge Franz Zibilich by promising to reduce the use of jail and prison time. She and other candidates on a progressive platform argued that incarceration itself generates additional crimes in the future, and that the use of cash bail disproportionately harms poor people.

Andry’s attorney argued that the $250,000 bail set by Zibilich prevented him from being released to care for his arthritic mother and disabled brother. The judge should reduce his bail to $40,000, an amount his family could cobble together, said the lawyer, Lindsay Markel of the Orleans Public Defenders.

“Mr. Andry is not under illusions that the resolution of this matter will not involve jail time,” Markel said. “He is not trying to get out of that, he just really needs to take care of his mother.”

However, Assistant District Attorney Eric Cusimano pushed back, pointing Andry’s recent release from a lengthy prison term.

“The fact is, Mr. Andry was sentenced to a crime of violence for 15 years, and upon release from that crime of violence now finds himself charged in two very strong cases with two crimes of violence involving a firearm in which two innocent civilians were held up at gunpoint and had their possessions or property taken from their immediate control,” Cusimano said.

In the end, Harris dropped Andry’s bail to $100,000, with the condition that he enter into a drug treatment program and wear a monitor.

No one in the criminal justice system has given a definitive answer as to whether Andry was wearing a monitor on the morning of Pollock’s death. Detectives believed they spotted one of the devices on Andry in surveillance video that recorded him near the scene of the killing. But law enforcement sources have said that if Andry was wearing a device, it wasn’t actually tracking his movements. Investigators had to resort to seeking cellphone records in their attempt to locate where Andry was after the slaying.

The judge herself has given shifting statements. Last week, a court spokesman said there had been a “mix-up” when Andry was transferred from Orleans to Jefferson for bail setting on a case there that resulted in his release without a monitor. But at a court hearing Tuesday, Harris said she personally observed Andry wearing a monitor at a subsequent hearing, according to WDSU-TV.

Whatever the details of Andry’s case, it seems poised to reignite a long-running debate over how often defendants should be released ahead of trial.

Critics like Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor who’s president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, say the system has swung too far in favor of defendants. It was a criticism that Banks echoed.

“I’m not anti-reform, I’m not anti- any of that, but public safety has to be factored into that,” he said. “And I think that’s what we’re missing here.”

But reform advocates say there are also huge costs to jailing people who haven’t been convicted, who are cut off from families and often lose their jobs. One said local leaders shouldn’t make decisions based on a single, “outlier” case, no matter how tragic. Will Snowden, a former public defender who’s director of the Vera Institute in New Orleans, noted that one jurisdiction which closely tracks defendants released ahead of trial found that 98% avoid re-arrest for violent crimes.

“We know that people can be safely released when they have the pretrial services,” he said.