Last month, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro challenged Criminal District Court judges to hold 600 jury trials — more than double the 2010 total — in 2011. Can it be done?
At his State of the Criminal Justice System report at the end of January, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro asked Criminal District Court judges to more than double the number of jury trials they held in 2010. The 12 sections of court held a combined 278 trials last year; Cannizzaro challenged them to increase that number to 600 this year.
Cannizzaro's office is keeping score. Each month the office will release a tally of how many jury trials were held in each section of court, and which judges are holding the most. (Section F Judge Robin Pittman, with six jury trials, led the month of January.)
In January 2011, six of the 12 Criminal District Court sections presided over four or more jury trials, with seven of the 12 accounting for 32 of last month's 35 trials. One section held two trials; another held only one; and three sections didn't have any jury trials.
By mid-February, seven of the 12 sections were in the middle of jury trials: three for murder, two for second-degree murder, one multi-defendant narcotics case, and another for aggravated rape case. Cannizzaro says he's "very satisfied so far," and the judges — as well as the DA's office — are on track to meet his goal, though assistant DA Christopher Bowman notes that judges aren't working hard only to meet the DA's challenge. "They're working hard because they want to be good judges," he says.
Meeting the 600-trial challenge, Cannizzaro says, requires the full cooperation of the entire criminal justice system: judges, cops, the sheriff's office and public defenders.
Already the Orleans Public Defenders Office says it won't be able to keep up. The office is understaffed, underfunded and lacks enough resources to tackle the number of cases the DA's office is bringing in, officials there say.
"We can't represent people competently, safely, when we're dealing with these kinds of numbers coupled with the resources we're allotted," says chief public defender Derwyn Bunton. "There has got to be more discretion at the prosecuting end so that we can keep up and the city can remain safe."
The DA accepts 85 percent of the cases brought by NOPD, but the public defenders can't match that pace. Bunton adds that the number of jury trials should not be the metric for assessing the efficacy of a system of justice.
"I don't think you measure safety by how many cases come through the system," Bunton says. "You measure safety by how many times you can keep folks out of the system, how many times you can get people back and working and producing.
"The number of fish in your net, I don't think, is a badge of honor."
Beginning in 1986, Cannizzaro served as a Criminal Court judge for 17 years, trying, on average, more than 100 cases in a year. It's been done before — Cannizzaro points to his prolific former colleagues like the late Criminal Court Judge Frank Shea, retired Judge Miriam Waltzer and the late Judge Shirley Wimberly Jr.
"There's really nothing different, to be honest with you," Cannizzaro says. "We've accepted more cases, but we have more judges."
In the early 1990s, the court was averaging 50 trials a year in each section — more than 500 trials combined. Criminal District Court was made up of 10 sections until 1997, when it added two more sections. In the years that followed, the court averaged fewer trials, reaching a little more than 400 per year.
In his first year in office in 2003, DA Eddie Jordan tried fewer than 200 jury trials. Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods threw a wrench into the criminal justice system, but the number of trials has increased each year since. In 2010, two years into Cannizzaro's tenure, the courts held 278 jury trials, averaging a few more than 23 trials a year per section. Cannizzaro's new goal? To more than double that pace.
"Time is the enemy of the prosecutor," Bowman says.
"The purpose ... is to move the cases through the criminal justice system, through the dockets as quickly as we can," Cannizzaro says. "Age and the staleness of the cases usually work against the state. And in many cases, the victims are denied justice, are denied their day in court."
But Bunton says a trial "is not an inherent good," adding that a trial results from the inability to reach a plea agreement. The DA's office believes an overwhelming majority of defendants will be found guilty if tried.
"The best way to resolve cases is to resolve cases," Bunton says, "to make use of appropriate and just plea agreements, do it more often, (and) use more discretion in the prosecution of cases — so maybe don't take every ... case at the highest possible criminal exposure."
Cannizzaro says his office accepts more cases than it "disposes," or takes all the way through the court system. He estimates that of the 120 murder cases his office accepted last year, 50 went to trial; in 2009, his office accepted 110 murder cases and 35 were tried.
One fact is not in dispute: The public defenders office struggles to balance a small staff and budget with a workload that gives some of its 55 attorneys more than 100 clients at the same time (see "Playing Defense," Feb. 22, 2009).
In December 2010, Bunton announced a hiring freeze and cutbacks on providing representation for indigent defendants. Also that month, the Louisiana Public Defender Board filed a lawsuit alleging Orleans Parish judges failed to assess the $35 fee for convicted defendants. Those fees help fund the public defenders office, as do Traffic Court fines and other fees. The public defenders' estimated $8 million budget for 2009-2010 had no funding from the city's general fund.
The office handles more than just the major cases in Criminal Court. It also covers Municipal, Juvenile and Traffic courts.
"We are not resourced like the DA's office, we're not resourced like the police, and when they force a lot of work toward our door, it becomes a problem," Bunton says.
The DA's office hasn't communicated with the public defenders regarding the 600-trial challenge, but the DA stands behind his call for every department in the criminal justice system to work harder.
"When I say work harder, I'm not denying that people are working," Cannizzaro says. "I'm saying everyone needs to come collectively together and say we've got to make an effort if we're going to realistically solve this problem in our community — the crime of violence — and shed the title of being the murder capital of America."
With the push for more trials, some sections of court will find themselves having to wait for the jury pool to refill. "When four or five sections call for juries at the same time, there just aren't enough people in the jury pool to satisfy them," Cannizzaro says. "If all 12 judges said, 'I want to have a jury right now,' you just do not have enough jurors in the basement to service all 12 sections of the court. So by the very nature of what we're doing, this process will have to be staggered."
But even with a larger jury pool, Cannizzaro says, all 12 sections wouldn't be able to start at the same time, delaying some sections while others proceed. ("If we're going to want to try to work at this pace, that's just one of the inconveniences we're going to have to suffer," the DA says.) Bowman dismisses critics who say there isn't enough room even if more jurors were available. "We've got to stop thinking of reasons we can't do something and figure out ways to do them," he says.
The DA's office has contacted the judges to ask for more jurors. "We're doing everything we can to try to proceed and get the dockets moving as quickly as we can," Cannizzaro says.
What do the judges think about the DA's push? After Cannizzaro's address in January, Criminal District Court judges have stayed mum on the 600-trial challenge.
Gambit's questions to the judges were forwarded to Criminal District Court spokeswoman Margaret Dubuisson, who says the judges attended the address and "listened."
"At this time, we're just digesting all of that, and the chief judge went there at the DA's invitation and just wanted to listen and observe what his proposals were," she says.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice organization advising the Criminal Justice Leadership Alliance and other agencies, also did not offer comment on Cannizzaro's challenge when contacted by Gambit.
"We can't continue to put this off," Cannizzaro says. "We have a community that is screaming that it's enough, there is too much violence going on. We're asking the community to come forward and help us in reporting crimes and standing up and coming to court and testifying. And when we get people to come in, we've got to be in a position to move those cases. ... We can't delay them and continue them and let them drag on and linger on."