DSA New Orleans 2020 Dec 5 Runoff

Voter Guide

District Attorney

A reduced-turnout runoff will decide one of Louisiana’s most powerful and consequential offices. Every vote matters, and in this race we cannot overstate the chasm of experience, vision, and backers that separates Council President Jason Williams and former Judge Keva Landrum. The local political establishment that has lined up behind Landrum is the establishment that gave us the highest incarceration rate in the world, jailed domestic violence and sexual assault survivors to coerce their testimony, threatened excessive sentencing in every case, sent out illegal fake subpoenas, and argued that people accused of shoplifting, trespass, and drug possession should stay in a COVID-wracked jail because they “failed to provide any medical documentation [they were] at risk of contracting Coronavirus in the Orleans Justice Center.”

This establishment, comprising Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Action New Orleans (“You’re worried about criminals catching coronavirus? Tell them to stop breaking the damn law.”), Councilmember Jay Banks’s BOLD, and the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, all endorsed the more conservative “law and order” candidates like Rhonda Goode-Douglas, Franz Zibilich, Juana Marine Lombard, and Paul Sens in the November election. Add to those endorsements the John Georges-controlled hydra Nola.com/Times-Picayune/Advocate/Gambit and fossil-fuel-funded and bail-bondsmen-backed U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond (who will be leaving Congress to join the Biden administration as a “business liaison” to the climate movement — "Liaison" in this case being a fancy Louisiana word for "bouncer"), and Landrum no longer feels pressure to court the reform vote. She skipped the People’s DA Coalition’s Runoff Forum (representing more than thirty organizations of formerly incarcerated residents, crime survivors, people who were wrongfully convicted, and families of incarcerated loved ones), and went the entirety of her campaign refusing to respond to its survey. She has also shied away from the formerly incarcerated persons group Voters Organized to Educate, dodging their survey.

Meanwhile, Jason Williams spearheaded a funding increase for the Orleans Public Defenders, bringing it closer to parity with the DA’s office. NOLA Defenders for Equal Justice have endorsed Jason Williams, as have Voters Organized to Educate. The ACLU draws a sharp contrast between Williams’s pledges not to prosecute marijuana possession, not to use habitual offender enhancements, not to lock up survivors to coerce their testimony, and not transfer children to adult court, versus Landrum’s opposing stances. Similarly, the Platform for Youth Justice favors Williams’s promises to never prosecute juveniles as adults, not punish the families of system-involved youth, take police out of schools, and shift funding from law enforcement to the community. He’s also gained the endorsement of Real Justice PAC, who endorsed Kim Gardner in St. Louis, José Garza in Austin, Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, DSA-endorsed Tiffany Cabán in Queens, and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia. Finally, he’s pulled in the endorsement of former candidate Morris Reed, while Arthur Hunter has yet to endorse anyone.

Williams, who describes the current legal system as our biggest monument to Jim Crow, opposes funding the court system off poor people’s bail money and fines as “a clear form of money injustice,” attacks debtors’ prisons, and talks about addiction and mental illness as medical problems not treatable through incarceration. He has frequently criticized Leon Cannizzaro for using fake subpoenas, transferring children to adult court, jailing witnesses, and accepting an absurd 90% of the cases NOPD brought. He also proposed funding legal representation for immigrants facing deportation and fought to end arrests for marijuana. As chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, Williams sponsored reforms like directing NOPD issue summonses instead of making arrests for certain offenses, ordering prompt disclosure of body-worn camera footage to defense attorneys, and adopting Eye on Suirveillance’s proposals banning facial recognition, automatic license plate readers, cell-site simulators, and characteristic tracking systems. He also created a number of electronic dashboards for the public to track jail population, bond information, consent decree data, and racial disparities in New Orleans’s criminal punishment system. This summer, he supported Jay Banks’s proposal to ban tear gas use in New Orleans. It could be said that Williams is less of a true reformer and more of an ambitious politician who has seen the people's energy behind changing our criminal system. Regardless of his personal motivations, Williams has a record of reform and advocacy, and is the candidate in this run-off who most represents criminal system reform.

Williams’s criminal defense portfolio includes Innocence Project New Orleans clients George Toca and Greg Bright, as well as defending the recanting witnesses who cleared exoneree Jerome Morgan when Cannizzaro threatened them with perjury charges. Since 2009, he’s been a board member at Innocence Project New Orleans, and he repeatedly says he will work to compensate these wrongfully convicted people, rather than wasting resources fighting the cases.

During this campaign, Williams has sworn off contributions from bail companies and police unions. On the other hand, he has taken money from charter school promoter Leslie Jacobs and real estate developers Pres Kabacoff and Aaron Motwani. These people set off alarms for us, and the developer money is troubling in light of studies documenting that law enforcement overpolices gentrifying areas to support real estate interests, such as in the police murder of Breonna Taylor, though Jacobs and Kabacoff have been involved in progressive criminal justice reform efforts.

Also concerning is Williams’s desire to combat car burglaries by returning to NOPD’s task force style of “predictive policing” that he himself criticized as a councilmember. The task forces were discontinued when federal monitors reported that they “routinely stop people on a questionable legal basis, engage in unsafe practices, keep shoddy records, and operate with inadequate supervision.” These violations included French Quarter officers caught on video fabricating reasons for an illegal arrest, and another group of officers initiating an illegal car chase that killed two teenagers and a preschool teacher. Like Landrum, his contribution to ending the racist drug war stops after decriminalizing minor marijuana possession, despite his campaign speech observations that drugs are effectively already decriminalized in Tulane student housing. Like both, he agrees not to prosecute sex workers but goes further with his intentions to decriminalize sex work at the legislature.

The significance of his tax fraud case remains up in the air, but his campaign has embraced the narrative that the federal charges are part of US Attorney General Bill Barr’s crusade against “social justice DAs.” Outgoing DA Cannizzaro denies instigating a vindictive prosecution against his political foe Williams, but in the city’s last mayoral election, Cannizzaro announced an anonymous criminal complaint against LaToya Cantrell while he backed her opponent Desiree Charbonnet. Cantrell was cleared of those charges.

Williams stresses a need for culture change at the DA’s office and proposes firing current prosecutors, reporting misconduct to the state bar association, starting a civil rights division, keeping a list of police who have lied and are no longer fit to testify in court, and investing heavily in implicit bias training. On policy, he makes a firm commitment to never jail sexual assault or domestic violence survivors. He adopts the Innocence Project’s research that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, and will instead place more weight on DNA, fingerprints, and video footage. He says he’ll decline cases resulting from mental health crises, favoring the city’s existing Assisted Outpatient Treatment program for individuals with severe mental illness. Like other candidates, he will review existing excessive sentences, consent to new trials for non-unanimous Jim Crow convictions, and will support parole eligibility for juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison. Williams says he will return to the conviction integrity unit he helped arrange between the DA and the Innocence Project New Orleans before Cannizzaro abandoned it. To eliminate New Orleans’s infamous “DA time” of people sitting in jail for months while the DA makes their charging decision, he pledges to accept or reject cases within 5 days. Like his opponent, he commits not to transfer juveniles to the adult jail, but unlike his opponent, when asked whether he will treat kids like kids by refusing to prosecute them as adults, he refreshingly just says, “Yes.” Read Williams’s response to our survey.

Landrum keeps claiming to be the only candidate with the prosecutorial experience to “reform” the district attorney’s office, but the entirety of her experience undermines that shallow refrain. Her career started under Harry Connick, Sr., subject of the New York Times editorial “How many constitutional violations will it take before the New Orleans district attorney’s office is held to account for the culture of negligence and outright dishonesty that has pervaded it for decades?” In 2000, she was preparing a rape prosecution alongside Section G candidate Lon Burns when Burns “found” incriminating napkins in the defendant’s seized pants. Though Burns was reprimanded for planting evidence, Landrum has repeatedly emphasized during this campaign that she has “never been in any way disciplined for [her] cases.” When Eddie Jordan’s 2007 resignation made her the first woman DA in Louisiana, she “reformed” the office by charging small amounts of marijuana as felonies. She then abandoned a case against white NOPD officers who beat and planted a gun on Black RTA workers, after a witness drowned in unexplained circumstances. The NOPD party also included Superintendent Ronal Serpas’s son-in-law and Cannizzaro’s daughter and son-in-law.

Landrum remained in charge when her assistants intentionally withheld an internal memo that supported Robert Jones’s innocence, and then when asked why she was unable to prioritize the exoneration of an innocent man, she deflected, "I had a lot of things to do to keep the office afloat.” When asked this month if she had ever skipped the basic prosecutorial task of getting a real subpoena signed by a real judge, and instead, sent an illegal fake subpoena not signed by a judge, she answered, “I dealt with thousands of cases, so I don’t know if I sent a fake subpoena.” As a judge, Landrum issued 14 arrest warrants for reluctant witnesses, several of which were connected to fake subpoenas.

Landrum couples her dismal track record with an uninspiring lack of vision on major issues. When prompted to denounce the death penalty, she pitches a recent revelation borne not of moral clarity but of political polling: “The citizens of New Orleans have made it extremely clear that they do not want the death penalty. I recognize that the death penalty has proven to be too costly to pursue, it does not heal for victims and their families, and also it is not a deterrent for crime.” The citizens of New Orleans have also made it extremely clear that they do not want reluctant witnesses to be threatened, intimidated, or jailed. On this issue, however, Landrum doesn’t share the community’s outrage and forebodingly suggests that those “who aren’t ready yet, we might have to walk them through that process.” She will use the habitual offender law largely responsible for the state’s astronomical incarceration rate--and used more by the Orleans Parish District Attorney than other parishes-- “as a shield to protect the community from violent offenders.” Finally, she lacks the moral fortitude to promise not to cooperate with ICE.

Landrum now says she’ll grant new trials for people convicted by non-unanimous juries, but like every other judge in the courthouse, she never once granted an oft-filed legal motion demanding that the jury’s verdict be unanimous. On releasing people who are innocent until proven guilty of a nonviolent allegation, she claims to be committed to “the release of nonviolent offenders.” A sample of cases from Landrum’s Section E docket, however, shows that she didn’t always release people with nonviolent charges, and she almost never granted motions to reduce bail. Landrum promises open-file discovery to get defendants all of the evidence in their case, but her survey response that “We will not force or coerce anyone to accept a plea until they have all the evidence to make a rational decision in consultation with their attorney,” is unnerving.

Landrum’s accountability promises have been short on specifics. She invites a yearly review of her office’s performance but concedes no mechanism for correction or sanction. On addressing racism in policing, Landrum offers to “sit down with police to address fairness and racial bias,” which is perhaps the least meaningful remedy one could propose to the problems of American policing, but one that matches her courthouse reputation of rarely finding fault in police investigations. Like Williams, she commits to a conviction integrity unit, and though she pledges to report bad prosecutors in her office, there’s no record she ever reprimanded any one of Cannizzaro’s prosecutors.

Landrum’s recurrent campaign pitches have been to be tough on violent crime and to connect other defendants to jobs, education, and rehabilitation. This theory of criminal justice blames our mass system of punishments and prisons on individual failures, rather than an economic system that purposely locks some people out, a means-tested "safety net" that catches almost no one, a complete denial of the effects of trauma, and a legal system designed to enforce and support this social order. And for all her talk of connecting people to services, there’s no evidence that she ever did any of this during her past 12 years on the bench.