More accustomed to grilling prosecution witnesses as a criminal defense attorney, City Councilman Jason Williams became one himself Tuesday morning, forced to testify about text messages to and from an Orleans Parish inmate who was then a client of his.
Or perhaps the person on the other end of the messages was not Keith Kisack but someone close to the suspected murderer — who later Tuesday was convicted of keeping a cellphone and charger inside Orleans Parish Prison in late 2011.
Williams testified there was no way for him to know who had the phone, nor did he try to find out when he sent numerous texts and holiday greetings meant for Kisack, before sheriff’s deputies discovered the phone in a Dec. 27, 2011, jail shakedown.
“We get phone calls, text messages on a regular basis from mothers, wives, sisters. A lot of time they’re on the phone with a person in jail, and they’ve got a question,” Williams said. “A lot of those messages, you don’t know exactly who you’re communicating with, but you know the purpose.”
Subpoenaed by prosecutors with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to validate the communications with Kisack, Williams was not accused of any crime.
Kisack was, however, and a six-member jury deliberated for less than 15 minutes before convicting him on a single count of possessing contraband, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
Cannizzaro’s office, however, is expected to seek a sentence of 20 years or more for Kisack, 39, under the state’s habitual offender law. Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier set a Sept. 4 sentencing date for Kisack, who was jailed in 2009 on suspicion of murder and other crimes.
His attorneys, Ike Spears and Eusi Phillips, argued that Kisack was being singled out as a scapegoat after inmate-shot videos emerged last year at a federal hearing on reforms to Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s jail. Those now-infamous videos, which had been hidden away for more than three years in a Sheriff’s Office safe, showed inmates cavorting with drugs, beer and a loaded gun, and in one case leaving the jail for a jaunt down Bourbon Street.
Cannizzaro’s office filed charges against 14 people seen in the videos; most of them have since pleaded guilty.
The videos came to light more than a year after Kisack was booked on the contraband count, and the jury apparently didn’t buy the argument that his prosecution was a result of their notoriety. It found him guilty of keeping a phone that a sheriff’s deputy found tucked in a sock inside a wall on the C-2 tier of Orleans Parish Prison.
“District Attorney Cannizzaro has made the contraband cases a top priority,” said Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for the office. “Cellphones in the jail are dangerous. That’s how witnesses die. You have to set a standard where the inmates know there’s going to be consequences for this.”
Prosecutors presented no evidence of where the phone came from or who paid for its minutes. Excluding graphic photos found on the phone, prosecutors presented the jury with pictures and dozens of texts, including messages to and from Williams.
The councilman’s testimony came after higher courts ruled his messages were personal and not protected by attorney-client privilege. Among them was a holiday missive.
“Happy Thanksgiving KK ... We gonna try to make this your last one in that place,” reads a Nov. 24, 2011 text, sent from a number that Williams acknowledged Tuesday was his.
Williams said he often referred to Kisack by his initials. He also testified that never thought much about whether his messages were getting to Kisack directly or indirectly. He said he frequently stored numerous phone numbers of clients’ family members under the same name.
“I didn’t even try to figure it out,” he responded to questions about the source of the messages. “I can’t tell you I try to root out who typed a message or where the phone was.”
Williams said he sets a priority on responding readily to clients, under his ethical obligation as an attorney. “One of the biggest mistakes lawyers make is not communicating with a client,” he said.
Williams stepped away from representing Kisack after learning from prosecutors that some of the texts involved him.
Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli steered clear of probing the content of the text messages, content to have Williams confirm that Kisack was the intended recipient.
Williams, who won an at-large council seat in a March runoff, sits on the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. Among its tasks, the committee reviews the district attorney’s $6.2 million budget.
“If you had known at the time that phone was actually in Orleans Parish Prison, would you have taken these courses of action that you did?” Napoli asked.
“I would not have responded” to messages from it, Williams testified before stepping down from the stand.
Kisack’s attorneys argued that neither the emails to and from Williams, nor the photos of Kisack that prosecutors said include a “selfie,” proved anything about who kept the phone on the jail tier. The phone apparently also roamed to another part of the jail.
Kisack, sporting a crisp white dress shirt, a white knit cap and an assault-rifle tattoo on his cheek, looked on as Williams testified.
At one point Williams greeted the defendant.
“You don’t have any information Keith Kisack was ever in physical possession of the cellphone?” Spears asked him.
“There would be no way for me to have that information,” Williams responded.
Kisack’s record dates back to the early 1990s and includes convictions on gun counts, aggravated battery, robbery and kidnapping, along with illegal possession of a stolen auto and resisting an officer.
He was indicted in 2009 on charges of murder, attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon. He has remained behind bars since his arrest in 2009.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.