Letten speaks at Court Watch NOLA benefit



Former United States Attorney Jim Letten made the first of two major public appearances this week at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel, a benefit lunch for Court Watch NOLA, which monitors felony cases in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Letten resigned from his post last month after continuing revelations that his top deputies posted inappropriate comments on Nola.com.

"I do want to thank you all for inviting me, and I actually want to thank you for keeping the invitation open. When I was invited, I was United States Attorney. And I am citizen Jim Letten now," he said.

Letten, who was scheduled to speak about challenges facing the city's criminal justice system, mostly used the speech to praise local officials and organizations like Court Watch and the Metropolitan Crime Commission for, Letten said, helping to usher in "unprecedented reform" in the local criminal justice system.

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"The groundbreaking successes we've achieved here in exposing, addressing, attacking and reducing corruption is not by any means due solely to our zero tolerance for corruption cases. I'm extremely proud of what the U.S. Attorney's Office and all of our patners did. It could not have taken root, it could not have taken place without your vigilance, your unrelenting vigilance," Letten said. "Now is not the time — yes we've made great strides against corruption, we're no longer a haven for corruption, we're no longer seen as a haven for corruption — now is not the time to stand down."

Also at the event, Court Watch executive director previewed the group's upcoming report on Criminal District Court during the first half of 2012. Court Watch's 2011 report, he said, identified some troubling issues in criminal court cases, notably an increase in continuances — delayed hearings for criminal trials.

Last year, he said, there was "progress, but not enough of it."

The District Attorney's office, Cousins said, saw a substantial increase plea deals, leading to reduced criminal backlogs. The transfer of state misdemeanors from Criminal District Court to Municipal Court, he said, "freed thousands of cases from the Criminal District Court docket."

Continuances, however, were still high, he said. The report on the first half of 2012 will be published in the next few weeks.

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