The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office that Leon Cannizzaro walked into nearly six years ago was by most accounts a listing vessel — racked by dysfunction, too slow to charge many locked-up defendants before the constitutional clock expired, and willing to refuse half the cases submitted to it by police.
Its last elected leader, Eddie Jordan, had resigned under a dark cloud more than a year earlier. Between Cannizzaro’s 2008 runoff victory and his January 2009 swearing-in, a federal appeals court upheld a $14 million judgment against the office in the case of former death row inmate John Thompson, who was freed after the discovery of key evidence hidden by a prosecutor.
The bill amounted to more than the office’s total annual budget, threatening to cripple its operations.
“Please keep us in your prayers,” Cannizzaro said at his inauguration.
Nearly six years later, the 61-year-old former judge delivered a far more assured message in a speech last month, touting a criminal justice system he labeled “perhaps the strongest ... in the modern era of the city.”
That might seem like a weak boast in a city with a bloated violent crime rate, a storied reputation for police corruption and a lengthy roster of overturned prosecutions. Yet as he prepares for a new six-year term, following the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision last week to remove sole challenger Lionel “Lon” Burns from the ballot, even some of the DA’s critics acknowledge significant strides in the efficiency and potency of the office — often to the chagrin of criminal defendants and their attorneys.
A paper-thin U.S. Supreme Court majority overturned the judgment for Thompson, and the District Attorney’s Office has stabilized under Cannizzaro’s watch, some observers say, allowing it to focus on some of the more endemic troubles within the city’s justice system.
In the meantime, the Metropolitan Crime Commission has heaped praise on the office and police for mending a historically chilly relationship enough to drive up the share of felony arrests that lead to convictions and prison time, particularly for violent crime and weapons offenders.
Felony arrests led to felony convictions in 45 percent of the cases in Orleans Parish from 2012, according to the latest MCC report. While short of the national average of 54 percent, that figure is well above the 25 percent “arrest-to-conviction” rate in the city during the years just before and after Hurricane Katrina.
Putting more people in jail
For better or worse, Cannizzaro’s office also is putting far more people behind bars, in raw numbers, than his predecessors, according to MCC figures.
Despite a 25 percent decline in felony arrests from 2007 to 2012, the number of those arrests resulting in jail time for convicts is up by an estimated 82 percent, to more than 1,400 a year, during that time.
Some think the excitable Cannizzaro, a former Criminal District Court judge, has learned from and quietly adapted to early missteps, although some defense attorneys say he clings to a bull-headed prosecutorial agenda that favors convictions and hefty prison sentences over justice.
Gone, at least publicly, is the combative stance that once had him openly dare the dozen judges at the criminal courthouse to pull up their socks and work harder, and then to urge state prosecutors to go after them over bonus medical coverage that he once enjoyed himself in his 17 years on the bench.
His 2011 challenge to the judges to conduct 600 jury trials in a single year never came close to materializing, though it rankled the judges. These days, Cannizzaro is far more willing to cut plea deals that may reduce the charges but still carry stiff prison sentences, MCC President Rafael Goyeneche said.
“Rather than beat his head against the wall, what he started to do was plea-bargain cases,” Goyeneche said. “I think he’s learning from his mistakes, rather than trying to repeat the same methodology to get the same results.”
Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens, who is now running for a seat on the Criminal Court bench, noted that not long after Cannizzaro came into office, he moved misdemeanor domestic violence cases across the street to the criminal courthouse.
It wasn’t long before he moved them back to Municipal Court. Cannizzaro went further, moving more than 1,000 misdemeanor drug and other offenses over to Municipal Court, in a move that helped clear the Criminal Court docket for hard-core felonies.
A progressive reformer?
Cannizzaro, who a spokesman said was unavailable for comment for this article, lately has cast himself publicly as a progressive reformer.
He touts his expansion of the diversion program run by his office that allows some nonviolent criminal defendants to avoid a permanent stain on their records.
More recently, the office joined with the Innocence Project New Orleans to announce the launch of a project to jointly review dubious convictions, believed to be a first-of-its-kind partnership in the nation.
IPNO’s director, Emily Maw, said the DA’s Office seems to be sincere in its stated willingness to root out rotten convictions and push for other broad reforms.
“He came into an office that needed a lot of work just to be a functional, effective DA’s Office in a big city with a very overused criminal justice system. My sense is he spent a few years just trying to get back to zero,” Maw said.
“Introducing things like management systems, to run it like a law office and not just a free-for-all for lawyers interested in criminal trials. He did that. Now, I think anyone who’s interacted with him over a period of time will see that in the broader stuff, the more systemic reform, he’s been a leader on that, and quite bold on some things.”
Maw noted that her office doesn’t try cases daily against prosecutors in Cannizzaro’s office, unlike many defense attorneys who say the DA has a tin ear when it comes to the circumstances of individual defendants.
Some criticize his drive to frequently exploit the state’s habitual-offender law to foist massive sentences on repeat convicts.
Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender in Orleans Parish, insists that Cannizzaro overuses the habitual-offender law and presses much harder than his predecessors to try juvenile offenders as adults in state court.
“He does it at a higher rate than any other district attorney I’ve been associated with. Higher than (Harry) Connick. Higher than Jordan. It’s very formulaic. It doesn’t take into account any unique features of the case,” Bunton said of the juvenile transfers.
“He’s an astute politician and a hard-working district attorney. I can say that as a positive,” Bunton added. “But what has made him different has been his, I think, resolve. His orneriness, hardheadedness, that helps him stand out.”
Bunton also criticized Cannizzaro for casting too wide a net in pursuing the sprawling gang racketeering indictments that have become the DA’s hallmark. Bunton said the cases have stretched the defense bar thin. Several of the judges overseeing the numerous pending gang indictments have appointed pro bono defense attorneys, some of whom have little experience trying criminal cases.
“At some point it’s going to come back to us. The (cases) are going to get reversed, and we’re going to be trying them again,” Bunton said.
Naturally, Cannizzaro has faced criticism over individual cases, perhaps most notably his failed bid to have Marigny homeowner Merritt Landry indicted for shooting a 14-year-old, Marshall Coulter, whom he had found in his gated backyard in the middle of the night.
Politically, though, he has cruised through the storm.
Cannizzaro was seen as virtually unchallengeable this year, in part because of the contrast with his predecessor, Jordan, who resigned in 2007, said University of New Orleans professor Ed Chervenak, whose last survey pegged Cannizzaro’s approval rating among the public at 55 percent.
Only Burns, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, threw his hat into the ring, but his bootstraps campaign lasted barely a month before he was booted from the race after the state Supreme Court found he had failed to file his taxes for four years running.
Before moving on to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in 2003, Cannizzaro was known as a fastidious, hard-working jurist at Criminal District Court, where he sat on the bench from 1986 to 2002, sometimes holding multiple trials in a day.
He’s regularly seen roaming the criminal court hallways and has been known to conduct “plea days” in selected court sections, personally swinging plea deals for multiple defendants in a take-it-or-leave-it style.
Sens, who counts himself as a friend from their days together as public defenders in the early 1980s, said Cannizzaro can be unbending to a fault, citing a restrictive attitude on allowing criminal defendants to participate in drug court and other specialty courts that are run by some of the Criminal Court judges.
“I think sometimes he feels the judges don’t monitor these things enough. I don’t think he has enough faith in them,” Sens said. “He’s the gatekeeper. We’re not going to incarcerate our way out of this (crime problem). I might open the gate a little wider.”
Cooperation with feds
The office’s coordination with federal authorities has resulted in numerous prosecutions, largely centered on the city’s anti-gang campaign.
In some cases, including the prosecutions of alleged Central City crime don Telly Hankton and several defendants accused in the Mother’s Day second-line shooting last year that injured 20, the prosecutions have moved from state to federal court, where conviction rates are higher and sentences often longer.
U.S. Attorney Ken Polite pointed to the Mother’s Day shooting case as a prime example of a tightening partnership that started between Cannizzaro and his longtime friend and fellow De La Salle High School graduate, former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.
“Leon really took the initial steps of getting those guys off the streets with some state charges. The most violent individuals we had the greatest concerns about — he was able to get those charges leveraged a lot faster,” Polite said. “But then, with those individuals off the street, our federal investigation continued to develop, and we were able to get to the point where it was a much larger gun and drug conspiracy with many more individuals.
“By the end of it, we both understood exactly where we wanted the case to go.”
Tensions have arisen between the offices, Polite acknowledged, but he said he has yet to feel Cannizzaro’s reportedly hot temper.
“I’ve only heard rumors of that. I have not seen that in action myself,” Polite said.
Things could have gone much differently during Cannizzaro’s first term had the office been strapped with the bill from the John Thompson judgment.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the office wasn’t liable for failing to train prosecutors about their obligation to turn over exculpatory material, and it said that Thompson never proved a pattern of misconduct in the office.
“If that (judgment) happens, there is no District Attorney’s Office. The Attorney General’s Office would have to step in,” Goyeneche said.
Cannizzaro acknowledged as much to a crowd of elected officials and supporters in his speech last month, before turning his attention to an uncertain but more encouraging future.
“I have listened to jail (phone) calls where mothers of inmates will chastise their children and remind them that this DA’s Office ‘don’t play around,’ ” Cannizzaro said. “Unfortunately, this message is either missed or ignored by some, so our work is not finished.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.