Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has decided to drop an extraordinary charge of criminal defamation that his office filed in October against a Metairie man who made headlines last year when he announced plans to form the “French Quarter Minutemen” and set up an armed citizens escort force in the city’s historic core.
Cannizzaro conceded in a statement that the charge against Aaron Jordan, filed under a state statute that the U.S. Supreme Court slammed a half-century ago in a case involving then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison, has no legal merit. His office plans to drop the charge Tuesday, when Jordan is due back in court.
The decision follows a federal civil rights lawsuit that Jordan filed early this month against the city, alleging false arrest or imprisonment.
Jordan also has sued The New Orleans Advocate, as well as The Times-Picayune and local TV and radio stations, over their reporting of the allegations against him.
All of his lawsuits stem from an arrest warrant issued for Jordan on May 30, 2014 — a day after he announced his Minutemen plans — for allegedly stalking a Municipal Court employee who is the niece of Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens, a friend of Cannizzaro.
Jordan, 38, surrendered five days later, was booked on the stalking count and posted a $25,000 bond.
Cannizzaro’s office decided to charge Jordan not with stalking — apparently finding no evidence of that crime — but instead with criminal defamation, a charge that remains on the books in about 17 states but is rarely used.
Critics describe it as a relic with dangerous implications. In a 1964 ruling that overturned a conviction against Garrison, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court, while not striking down the statute, found its language unconstitutional as the Louisiana Supreme Court had interpreted it.
The high court noted that Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute was enacted in an era when lawmakers were trying to discourage violent duels over malicious slights, true or false.
Now, civil remedies are sufficient to address libel, critics of the law say.
It’s unclear when the statute last was used in Orleans Parish, where Cannizzaro’s office on Oct. 8 charged Jordan with a single count of criminal defamation stemming from a series of letters that Jordan fired off in 2013.
Jordan was miffed by what he felt was Sens’ biased handling of a criminal trespassing charge for which he was convicted in 2009. He did some research, keying on a report from New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office that found that a slew of Sens family members had been on the court’s payroll for several years.
Among them was Sens’ niece and court crier, Lenee Sens-Crowley, who also works as a real estate agent.
In one letter to the realty company that employed Sens-Crowley, Jordan recounted Quatrevaux’s allegations of nepotism and asked the company to fire her. Another letter, sent to some of Sens-Crowley’s clients, got more personal, saying she was “involved in bilking the New Orleans taxpayers through her family ‘dynasty’ in city government.”
Jordan also recounted news coverage of contracts that Sens-Crowley’s husband, Dan Crowley, had with the office of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, a longtime friend and political ally of Sens.
“In my opinion, the Sens family is a collaboration of ‘white trash’ that has embarrassed city government and the judiciary,” Jordan wrote.
In his federal lawsuit, Jordan said he wrote four letters in all, including a July 4, 2013, letter to various judges, calling for Paul Sens’ resignation, and three letters to real estate agents or their clients concerning either Lenee Sens-Crowley or Paul Sens’ estranged wife, Ann Sens, who also works in real estate.
The letters “contained factual allegations based on Mr. Quatrevaux’s letter and relevant news reports, together with the expressions of opinion by Mr. Jordan,” the lawsuit states. “The letters did not contain any threats or misleading or false statements.”
Under the May 30, 2014, arrest warrant, signed by Magistrate Commissioner Jonathan Friedman, NOPD Officer Derek Brumfield stated that Sens-Crowley reported that Jordan was “intentionally and repeatedly harassing her” with the letters.
The alleged harassment “has made her suffer emotional distress. And after learning that (Jordan) was known to be a gun advocate has her in and (sic) even more state of fear of the subject acting out against her and her family,” the warrant application stated.
Along with the city, Brumfield is named in Jordan’s federal suit.
Prior to Cannizzaro’s decision to drop the case, Jordan’s attorney cast a jaundiced eye on the prosecution.
“Criminal defamation prosecutions are hideously rare. The fact they’re pursuing this is extremely suspicious,” said Owen Courreges. “This really is just unheard of and unproven.”
He noted that there was no allegation that Jordan ever threatened Sens-Crowley’s safety.
Several Criminal District Court judges recused themselves in the defamation case, which ultimately landed with Judge Laurie White.
Cannizzaro spokesman Christopher Bowman acknowledged a questionable charging decision.“As you are well aware, the DA’s Office intends to dismiss the defamation charge at the next hearing date on Tuesday,” Bowman said in a written statement issued Friday.
“During a conversation earlier this week with an attorney for The Times-Picayune, on a similar but albeit unrelated issue, the District Attorney’s Office determined that although the defamation statute remains on the books, multiple rulings from the United States Supreme Court as well as the Louisiana Supreme Court have rendered it effectively unconstitutional,” the statement reads.
“While there is no doubt that the defendant has unjustifiably harassed this victim, his cowardly conduct might not violate any Louisiana criminal statutes.”
One of the women Jordan wrote about, Ann Sens, also faces prosecution, in a domestic abuse case where her estranged husband, Paul Sens, is the purported victim.
In that case, Cannizzaro’s office and all of the Criminal Court judges have recused themselves.
Cannizzaro’s office said its recusal was the result of his “longstanding acquaintance with both the accused and the victim in the matter. Additionally, the District Attorney’s Office regularly presents cases before the victim, Judge Paul Sens.”
Before deciding to drop the charge against Jordan, Cannizzaro’s office had fought attempts by Jordan’s attorney to force Cannizzaro to step away from the case.
“Neither Judge Sens nor Ann Sens is either a defendant or a victim in this case,” Bowman said in explaining why the District Attorney did not recuse in the Jordan case.
Nobody keeps track of how many criminal defamation cases crop up nationally, said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
“Criminal defamation laws are in steep decline. These kinds of restrictions are absolutely archaic and badly dated,” Paulson said.
In the Garrison case, the District Attorney was convicted under the defamation statute for accusing Criminal Court judges of laziness and inefficiency — creating a backlog of cases — and of failing to authorize payments for undercover vice agents. The U.S. Supreme Court found, in a 9-0 ruling, that the statute was unconstitutional as it relates to punishing true statements, or false ones that aren’t made with a reckless disregard for the truth.
Courreges, Jordan’s attorney, said his client has suffered damage from his arrest and prosecution under the defamation statute.
Jordan had posted his bond on “totally meritless” charges, Courreges said, and had “this restraining order that prohibits him from owning a firearm over his head.”
Courreges said Jordan intends to add Cannizzaro as a defendant in his federal lawsuit against the city, alleging malicious prosecution.
“The NOPD wasn’t responsible for them ... pursuing the new charges,” Courreges said. “That’s all on Cannizzaro.”
Jordan had planned to start working in private investigation and security. The charge put those plans, as well as his Minutemen program, on the shelf, Courreges said.
Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.