The city's next district attorney faces an uphill battle. The list of problems at the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office is extensive: a longstanding practice of refusing charges to bolster the office's conviction rate, a dysfunctional relationship with New Orleans Police Department, seasoned prosecutors jumping ship, low-level offenders waiting in jail while violent career criminals are set free, witness intimidation and more.
All of the candidates attorneys Linda Bizzarro, no party; Leon Cannizzaro, Ralph Capitelli and Jason Williams, all Democrats " have strategies for reforming the beleaguered office, which suffered a one-two punch in recent years: floodwaters during Hurricane Katrina and the feckless tenure of former DA Eddie Jordan.
Gambit Weekly sat down with each of the candidates to discuss the solutions he or she will bring to the office. Linda Bizzarro Bizzarro has been a prosecutor for 22 years, starting at former DA Harry Connick Sr.'s office in 1979 after graduating from Loyola Law School. She remained there for five years and prosecuted rapes, kidnappings and armed robberies, among other crimes. She went on to serve 17 years in the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans, managing and training a unit of five to 20 lawyers at a time. She also was the first director of the National Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council for the U.S. Justice Department.
Bizzarro says Jordan lacked the ability to have meaningful discussions with Police Chief Warren Riley. She says she'll be ready to talk to Riley about what she calls the city's "crime priorities."
"Last year, there were over 3,000 misdemeanor marijuana arrests," Bizzarro says. "Now, we're not dying from marijuana I'm not saying legalize it; it's still a violation but why not focus on gun arrests? If we had 3,000 gun arrests, I think we might have an impact on this city."
Bizzarro promises to work with NOPD to ensure that crimes are properly reported and charged by police. Better communication with cops, including joint training sessions with police and assistant DAs, would help increase the number of serious felony cases that are accepted, charged and prosecuted, Bizzarro says. Instead of the DAs who were screening the cases simply refusing charges from the police, which can artificially improve the DA's conviction rate, officers early in an investigation should be able to talk directly with prosecutors so arrests will stick.
She adds that her first acts as DA will be to restructure the office's management and increase the amount of training. She wants to hire direct supervisors instead of the two section supervisors the office currently employs. She also would hire an information technology officer to improve internal and external communications and tracking of cases. Leon Cannizzaro Cannizzaro joined the New Orleans DA's office in 1978 and worked there until 1983, rising to the position of chief of the trial division and prosecuting approximately 100 felony jury trials. He served as a judge at Criminal District Court from 1986-2002, presiding over more than 1,800 felony jury trials a state record, he says. For the past five years, he has been a judge at the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. He resigned to run for DA.
He says NOPD is a prosecutor's main source of information, and he plans to meet with Chief Riley regularly and coordinate training between the two agencies to foster better criminal investigations and improved communication during trials. He also favors the idea of assistant DAs (ADAs) doing "ride-alongs" and having prosecutors on call to work with cops in the early stages of major cases.
Cannizzaro promises to engage witnesses and victims, especially in homicide cases. He says he will use a holistic approach by sending out an investigator, an ADA and a social worker, or case manager. Teams would be on call 24/7, he says, establishing relationships with witnesses and, if necessary, arranging witness protection.
"I can't have a witness hanging out there for 30, 60, 90 days waiting for some assistant DA to call him or her," Cannizzaro says. "What happens and what's been happening is very simple: she's been bribed, or killed herself because she's a witness."
Cannizzaro says one of his proudest accomplishments as a judge was initiating a drug court where nonviolent offenders are eligible for drug treatment, job training and probation rather than incarceration. If elected, he pledges to expand that program. He also promises to assign more experienced attorneys to Juvenile Court, which he considers the most 'abandoned section."
To retain prosecutors, Cannizzaro says he will work with lawmakers to increase salaries. His first three priorities will be re-establishing public confidence by prosecuting murder cases that have sat on the docket for years; expanding the diversionary program for first offenders; and stopping the "revolving door" of youthful offenders at Juvenile Court, he says. Ralph Capitelli Capitelli began his 35-year career in criminal law under former DA Jim Garrison. He says what separates him from the other challengers is his experience as former DA Harry Connick Sr.'s first assistant " a job that made him manager of all the office's divisions, support staff and other attorneys. Capitelli held this position for three years and then left in 1980 to start his own law firm.
Capitelli says he will focus on reorganizing the office " hiring a fiscal officer to run the business side, a grant writer and a case manager as well as forming a violent crime unit. "I've got to send a strong message out on violent crime," he says, adding that he also will assign "on-call" prosecutors to each NOPD district.
Like other candidates, he pledges to expand the DA's diversionary program, which, if completed properly by a first-time, nonviolent offender, expunges an offense. 'The more we put criminal records on people that don't really need to have criminal records you've just taken them out of the work force," he says.
Capitelli also says the DA's office should work closely with the U.S. Attorney's Office to coordinate crime-fighting efforts where appropriate. He says it's a matter of allocating manpower wisely and the feds have "unlimited resources," so why not use them?
Capitelli adds that getting violent crime under control will be his top priority. 'Homicides and armed robberies are impeding the recovery of the city," he says.
He favors assigning assistant DAs to NOPD district stations, but he says it would be more effective to have them on call rather than 'on site" all the time. He also believes in the concept of 'vertical prosecution," with his top lawyers handling cases throughout the prosecution process, from screening to conviction.
He pledges to reinvigorate the office with a sense of pride and accomplishment to improve recruitment and retention, and he will ask each new hire to pledge a minimum of three years of service, which he did as Connick's first assistant. Jason Williams At 35 years old, Williams is the youngest candidate in the race. While many praise his courtroom abilities, his opponents note that he has worked only as a defense attorney and has never prosecuted a criminal. Williams says that's an advantage, not a liability, and adds that the other candidates have all played major roles in previous administrations that have left the city with the highest rate of incarceration in the United States " and the highest rate of violent crime. He says he isn't associated with the mistakes of the past.
'Sure, we may have a 95 percent conviction rate, but we're convicting low-level petty thieves and potheads," he says, 'and we're overworking our ADAs such that they don't have the time and resources to spend on murder, rape and armed robbery (cases)."
Williams' blueprint for changing the office includes restructuring the executive staff by hiring a chief financial officer, office manager and other managers; drafting a memorandum of understanding that delineates responsibilities and expectations between his office and NOPD; using modern technology and forensics so there is less reliance on eyewitnesses who can be intimidated; and creating specialized units in the areas of sex crimes, organized crime, violent offenders and contractor fraud.
Williams has had a private defense practice since 1999 and has worked extensively at Tulane and Broad. In response to criticism that he has never prosecuted before, he says prosecuting or defending a criminal case makes little difference in terms of knowing the law. "It's connecting with the jury, understanding the psychology of a jury, understanding the judge," he says. "What I want to do with my young lawyers is show them how to win in court."
Williams also promises a closer working relationship with NOPD "I will never blame the New Orleans police for a lost case" and supports the idea of ADAs going on "ride-alongs" with NOPD to give them a better understanding of arrests.
In his first year in office, Williams says he will reopen the DA's offices on South White Street, which remain closed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The open primary for Orleans Parish District Attorney is Oct. 4, so study up and go out and vote.
- Linda Bizzarro
- Leon Cannizzaro
- Ralph Capitelli
- Jason Williams