When embattled Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. announced his resignation last week, a crime-weary city heaved a sigh of relief. Make no mistake, however: Jordan's departure is no panacea for the many problems that bedevil the local criminal justice system. The end of Jordan's tenure as DA means only that the hard work of rebuilding that office has begun. The DA's office is just one piece of a much larger puzzle " and all the other pieces have problems of their own that need fixing. We congratulate Interim District Attorney Keva Landrum-Johnson, a 10-year veteran of Tulane and Broad, and we wish her every success in the role that has been thrust upon her. The public owes her a debt of thanks right from the start, as few in public life would wish to inherit an office that is in such disarray. Citizens likewise should give her their full support " and practice lots of patience " as she begins the arduous task of rebuilding the office. It will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight.
For starters, the district attorney's office still faces financial collapse as a result of two multi-million-dollar federal judgments, one for employment discrimination and the other for wrongful conviction. The consequences of even a temporary interruption of the DA's operations are too horrific to imagine for a city already known as the nation's murder capital. 'Right now, [Landrum-Johnson] is the captain of the Titanic, and it's heading to an iceberg," says Rafael Goyeneche, president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission.
State and local leaders must offer Landrum-Johnson every form of assistance while working with plaintiff attorneys to satisfy the $3.7 million federal employment discrimination judgment against the DA's office. That judgment followed Jordan's mass firing of scores of white clerical employees shortly after he took office in 2003. Jordan's inability to satisfy the judgment led to a federal judge authorizing seizure of the office's assets, further undermining Jordan's credibility and setting the stage for his resignation. We call upon Mayor Ray Nagin, who played a pivotal role in orchestrating Jordan's departure, and local business leaders, who supported the mayor's recent efforts, to continue working together to resolve the judgment issue.
But paying off the judgment is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Landrum-Johnson, the first woman to hold the local DA's office, will need additional financial help " both immediately and in the foreseeable future. The biggest complaint among assistant DAs is a lack of support staff. Experienced, competent prosecutors have had to spend countless hours doing clerical chores because the office does not have adequate secretarial help, computers, telephones and other essentials. The office also faces a $14 million wrongful conviction judgment " now on appeal " brought by former death row inmate John Thompson. The facts that gave rise to that suit occurred during the tenure of Jordan predecessor Harry Connick Sr., but Jordan's office defended the suit. We hope that whoever is handling the appeal will have more success than Jordan had trying to overturn the discrimination verdict.
Looking ahead, Landrum-Johnson deserves the public's confidence. She and the prosecutors who remain with the office held things together in the face of Hurricane Katrina, years of inadequate resources and inept upper management. The interim DA says she will not seek election to the job, which leaves her free to make tough decisions without weighing political consequences. In our view, it will take that kind of single-mindedness to get the job done. Landrum-Johnson spelled out her goals in plain language: 'I will develop a structure within the office which promotes and implements best practice techniques from district attorneys' offices throughout the nation. I will insist that all of us entrusted to the district attorney's office perform with a level of effectiveness and competency that will restore our own pride and the public's pride."
There have been perceptible improvements in the office in recent months, even while Jordan was still at the helm. For example, prosecutors won a string of convictions in recent weeks. Our sources note the recent improvements coincided with the decision by Jordan's former first assistant, Gaynell Williams, to take a leave in early August to seek a Criminal Court judgeship. Jordan, who ran the office like an 'absentee landlord," appointed two career prosecutors " Landrum-Johnson and Val Solino " to handle the first assistant's duties during Williams' absence, apparently to good effect. Now, one of them is running the office officially.
Overall, we take comfort in the words of Landrum-Johnson and in the assessment of Metropolitan Crime Commission president Goyeneche, who said last week, 'People think the DA's office is totally dysfunctional, and that is not true. It's been operating pretty effectively " with ineffective management at the top."
Now, finally, we have an experienced hand at the helm. We join all New Orleanians in wishing Landrum-Johnson a successful interim tenure.