Fired Up

Local attorney and pot crusader Gary Wainwright plants the seeds for his campaign for district attorney.



Some people are just a little tougher to label than others.

C. Gary Wainwright is one of those. Tall, lanky, bespectacled and bookish, he looks more like a guy who would sell you insurance (which he's done) than one who'd act as a judge for the annual "Cannabis Cup" competition in Amsterdam (which he's also done). When he's in court grilling a witness in a tone that ranges from sarcastic to condescending, it's miles away from his demeanor outside the courtroom, when he's ruminating about his philosophies on life and society and justice, using phrases such as "human compassion and love."

Either way, it's easy to forget he's New Orleans' most unconventional candidate for district attorney.

In his office across from the Criminal District Courthouse, where Wainwright has worked for all 12 years of his legal career as a public defender and then a defense lawyer, a commendation certificate from the Police Association of New Orleans (PANO) belies the scorn and threats Wainwright says he received from some New Orleans Police Department officers after he defended a man who shot a cop.

The client, John Dorsey, received a 15-year prison term in January after pleading guilty to drug charges and attempted murder of an officer. He's serving that sentence, plus another 10 years for an earlier cocaine charge. The cop, Juan Barnes, has a rebuilt left leg, a scar on his chest and a desk job in the NOPD.

To Wainwright, this case -- like so many others -- isn't a simple matter of good vs. evil, dealer vs. cop. This case, he claims, is one fragment of a malevolence that infects every facet of our culture: the war on drugs.

Wainwright links most of society's ills to this ongoing domestic battle, including governmental waste and inefficiency, oppression and hopelessness in poor communities, racism and violent crime. Barnes and Dorsey were both victims of the war on drugs, Wainwright maintains. If it didn't exist, Barnes wouldn't have been chasing Dorsey through an Algiers housing project in the middle of the night, trying to bust him for dealing crack.

It's an argument that, to put it mildly, didn't go over well with many NOPD officers. But Wainwright holds to it. "It was an ill-conceived, drug-war, jump-out-in-the-middle-of-the-night strategy to go after super minor drug offenses," he says. "I don't believe police officers should have to risk their lives for this type of activity."

The 47-year-old is in his favorite lunchtime haunt, Betsy's Pancake House on Canal Street, his tie tucked into his shirt as he picks at his trout amandine. He talks about why he believes he should succeed outgoing District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., who is not seeking re-election after holding the position for five terms, since 1973.

"I have worked in the Criminal District Court for the entirety of my legal career," Wainwright says. "Filling up the courthouse with thousands of minor drug cases every year has not served the people of our city well. And when you use scarce police resources to arrest people for possession of marijuana, you are taking police off the streets. ... While they're riding around joyfully bringing somebody to jail for a half a marijuana joint, there's a guy in our neighborhood breaking into our car."

Wainwright knows this subject well -- and he also knows what it's like to be on the wrong end of a pot bust.

Last February, the police arrested Wainwright on an outstanding municipal court attachment as he stood watching a Mardi Gras parade. He was also booked with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

Wainwright calls it a matter of retaliation by police angered about the Barnes case. He says the outstanding warrant was an invalid attachment to charges that had been dropped years ago, and that the police conducted an unconstitutional search on him, during which they said they found a "dugout" -- a carrying case designed to hold marijuana and a pipe.

"After the Barnes case," says Wainwright, "members of NOPD ran my name in the computer system to see if they had any reason to arrest me." The attachment generated from a 1998 spat between Wainwright and a bar manager. After both parties cooled off, Wainwright says, they dropped the charges against each other. The attachment came from an error by court employees who didn't note the charges had been dropped, according to Wainwright, who says he learned of it the night of his arrest.

He says the police had his old Uptown address -- he now lives in Mid-City -- and went looking for him. Purely by chance he was standing near his old house watching the Saturn parade when the cops spotted him. "They hit the jackpot, so to speak."

Wainwright recalls arguing with the arresting officer, telling him that if there was a municipal attachment out on him, Wainwright would be in court anyway the next morning and would answer it then. "[The officer] said 'I must arrest you,'" Wainwright recounts. "I said, 'Let's go.' He said 'You must be handcuffed.' I said, 'You are really going beyond the pale right now. ... I'm no danger to you.'

"They then very viciously put handcuffs on me and when we got caught up in Mardi Gras traffic I complained about the handcuffs being too tight." He says one of the officers then "cranked the handcuffs as tight as humanly possible and with a sneer asked if that was better." One of the officers then called Barnes on his cell phone, Wainwright says, and said, "Juan, we got Wainwright for you."

Barnes, now a public information officer who someday hopes to go back to solving narcotics crimes for the NOPD, won't comment on Wainwright's accusations.

"I'm just not gonna go tit-for-tat with Gary Wainwright," Barnes says. "I was, overall, satisfied with the justice that came out of the case. Anything that happened on his personal behalf -- if he wants to blame it on me, that's his choice."

Wainwright's case is still pending. But all this, inevitably, goes back to the drumbeat Wainwright keeps sounding: that criminalizing "soft" drugs such as marijuana is a crime unto itself: "Marijuana is not actually a drug. Marijuana is an herb, and the scientific information about marijuana is it's the only substance known to man that has no lethal dose."

His office, in a boxy building directly across from the courthouse, is testimony to this belief. On the wall, among the citations from organizations such as PANO and the Kiwanis Club, is a plaque adorned with a giant marijuana leaf, rolling paper wrappers and a picture of a pot plant. Emblazoned on the plaque are the words "Defend Your Right To Smoke, Grow and Share." There's a sign with the words "STOP Arresting Patients for Medical Marijuana." The wallpaper on his computer is a giant marijuana bud. A bank of file cabinets boasts several bumper stickers: "Thank you for pot smoking." "Free or Drug Free -- America Can't Be Both." "A Friend With Weed is a Friend Indeed."

"You don't hear about people committing armed robberies and murders to get weed," Wainwright says.

It's a warm Friday afternoon, and Wainwright, dressed in his yellow 100-percent hemp suit, is attending the swearing in of new police chief Eddie Compass. He parks his white BMW in a lot across from City Hall and lights a Benson & Hedges 100 as he crosses the street. He says that as district attorney, he would follow the European system of classifying drugs as "hard" or "soft."

"In Europe," he says, drawing on the cigarette, "they have a much more open and tolerant view because they understand that everyone has a place in society, even drug addicts. I operate from a position of human compassion and love directed toward non-violent persons who are, if anything, hurting themselves and their families. But I would have zero tolerance for violent cases; for murder, for rape."

For simple possession charges, the defendant would get a citation, and the district attorney's office would "decide if the case is worth prosecuting or if it should be in the DA's Diversion Program."

An expanded Diversion Program is central to Wainwright's vision as district attorney and to his theory that "the vast majority of probable crimes are fueled by drug addiction. If you really want to address the crimes, including murders, you have to address the root cause, and that's addiction. Drug treatment and education are 10 times more effective than repression measures, such as incarceration, for reducing drug use."

His views differ sharply with those of Connick, who has called the illegal drug trade "the terror of this country" and attempted to fight it with measures aimed at preventing drug use, such as drug testing in public schools.

Wainwright believes such approaches don't work. "We have been pursuing this mythic drug-free society for 30 years," he says, "and drugs are more powerful than they've ever been."

As district attorney, he would handle non-violent drug offenses in, to say the least, a different manner than Connick. "I would take the parking lot next to the DA's office, put up a giant Jazz Fest tent and have a full-time drug treatment program," he says. "For a first offense where there is a minor amount of drugs, they would receive counseling and treatment, not processed through court. ... Hopefully I would be able to cut the dockets in criminal court by 50 percent, increasing the time we get to spend on violent crimes, the rapists, the murderers."

For Wainwright, a self-proclaimed "extreme idealist and eternal optimist," such measures aren't just a means of cutting down on drug-related crimes, but on racism as well. "Drug prohibition is a failure as much as alcohol prohibition was a failure. ... The difference is that now, the people being caught in the crossfire are African American; then, the people being caught in the crossfire were Caucasian. That is the difference."

Wainwright doesn't entertain humility. He claims that as a child, his IQ was measured as the highest in the state, and says he enjoys "almost a mythical status in many neighborhoods in our city." He says that today he's recognized as one of the best trial lawyers in his field -- and that he knows the points that can make or break a criminal case.

He insists that when he is elected district attorney, he will convene three grand juries: one to investigate the Orleans Parish School Board and its finances, one to investigate former mayor Marc Morial's $13 million road repaving campaign of last summer, and one to investigate political corruption. The third issue is almost as big of a sticking point with Wainwright as the war on drugs. He would concentrate, he says on pursuing "meaningful cases and cases that involve public corruption. Cases that involve bribery, misappropriation of funds, public fraud ... cases we've never seen in this building.

"The changes that we need to make are systematic," he continues. "I would make the criminal district courthouse function in a much more efficient manner." He maintains that if the election for district attorney were held inside the criminal courthouse alone, he would be unanimously elected. "When I am district attorney, I will set all hearings to be held at a certain time. If for some reason they can't be held at that time, I will dismiss the case."

That tirade stems from aggravation. It's now 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and the judge is not on the bench. Since 8:30, only one witness has been called, and the judge has had to leave the courtroom periodically to handle other matters. "I've been held hostage since 8:30. Five cops have been held hostage out in the hall for two hours. Typical criminal courthouse lack of organization," Wainwright grouses. "This is taxpayer money that's being wasted. And do you know what all this is over? Cocaine residue!"

Wainwright is representing Chad Jolly, accused of running a cocaine delivery service of sorts. He is cross-examining five narcotics cops who trailed his client, served a search warrant and said they found scales and a glass pipe containing cocaine residue. Wainwright is trying to unravel the collective story the five officers have told, and there is more than a little acrimony in the courtroom as he grills Sgt. Paul Noel, a narcotics detective. He's waving an affidavit dated Dec. 24, 2002 in front of Noel. "You're the person who put the date on it, right?" Wainwright is asking. "The magistrate did not notice you had a date eight months in the future?"

"Obviously," Noel retorts.

Wainwright says later that he will ask Connick's office to drop the charges to misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia. He says the incident is one example of the police and courts wasting time and money on what he calls "meaningless" cases.

Get him started on Connick's tenure, and Wainwright will talk for hours. He blasts the district attorney for failing to prosecute police officers for lying on the stand and trumping up evidence -- a practice he calls "testilying." "Honest policemen who expect good work admire me, and are my friends," he maintains. "Dishonest policemen who I bust in court don't like me."

He also criticizes Connick's office for what he calls a habitual practice of withholding evidence from the defense; the office has weathered a handful of well-publicized conviction reversals due to prosecutorial improprieties. Connick's spokeswoman, Zully Jiminez, said the district attorney refused to comment on anything Wainwright had to say.

Wainwright knows both his platform and his personality won't appeal to everyone. He gets annoyed when ministers read devotionals during public events: "I don't know why we have to have all this prayer. They can make positive, affirming remarks without bringing God into it." His everyday speech is peppered with invective: blow job, circle jerk, clusterf--k, bullshit.

Yet he says he has a "tremendous amount of grassroots support" and that that people approach him daily to voice their encouragement. On this day in the CBD, people do stop Wainwright. A waitress tells him she'll help him in any way she can; a courthouse employee carols "Hello, Mr. DA!" when she passes Wainwright outside a building. In the courthouse elevator, a man pushing an industrial dolly greets Wainwright and offers to distribute campaign literature. Wainwright gives him a campaign button with his slogan, "Grow New Orleans."

Wainwright says he has collected three political contributions so far "from close friends" and wants his campaign money to come from businesses and entities outside New Orleans. Other announced candidates are lawyer James Gray II and former U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan. Civil District Court Clerk Dale Atkins and longtime Connick rival and former judge Morris Reed are expected to announce their intentions before qualifying in August.

It's Jordan for whom Wainwright reserves most of his criticism. He calls him "bowlerhead," due to Jordan's predilection for bowler hats, and questions his ability to try a criminal case. "Eddie Jordan had the complete power of the federal government to investigate political corruption in his city and he didn't indict a single public official from New Orleans," Wainwright says. "The only politician in the state of Louisiana of any stature that he could choose to go after was Edwin Edwards." Jordan did not return calls for comment by press time.

As he contemplates his bid for district attorney, Wainwright believes his reputation is in his favor.

"As long as people are minding their own business they should be given the benefit of the doubt," he says. "Anyone who believes that those of us who smoke pot believe that murderers and rapists should run free, are confused. We are generally the most peaceful, kind and considerate people in the world and we don't want to be victimized.

"Personally, I would like to see pot smoking replace a lot of the hard drugs. If you can get a person on heroin or cocaine to stop using heroin or cocaine, and start smoking pot, it would be healthier for them and better for the community. I'm hopeful that everyone who has smoked pot, or currently smokes pot, or does not smoke pot but believes that people should not be arrested for smoking pot -- I hope they have the personal integrity to vote for me."

He smiles. "And if they don't, when they get arrested for smoking pot, I'll be there at Tulane and Broad representing them."

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