Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro took to the podium Tuesday night to tout a progressive agenda and vast improvements to the city’s criminal justice system, which he declared “perhaps the strongest … in the modern era of this city.”
Appearing less brash and combative, and more assured of his record, after nearly six years in office, Cannizzaro chose Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward, near the site of a recent shooting spree that killed two and injured five others, for his annual report on the state of the criminal justice system.
“I am proud to report to you and all the citizens of the city of New Orleans that the criminal justice system that we have built together is strong,” he said, touting strides in cooperation with local police and federal agencies.
His 52 minutes onstage came on the eve of the qualifying period for an election in which — until Tuesday night — no one had come forward to announce a challenge to Cannizzaro, a former Criminal District Court and Appeals Court judge who took over what he described as a dysfunctional office that left violent criminals confident of escaping justice.
Former prosecutor Lon Burns said late Tuesday that he will make the race.
Cannizzaro pressed most forcefully on strides he said his office has made in improving integrity and fairness, citing several cases of prosecutorial misconduct that his office inherited. Although he never mentioned former District Attorney Harry Connick by name, the man who led the office for three decades was implicitly front and center as Cannizzaro described troubles he has faced from previous bad convictions — including a potentially crippling $14 million court judgment that landed as he took office, but which the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly overturned in the case of John Thompson.
After reviewing evidence that two juries never saw, Cannizzaro quickly agreed in May to set free Reginald Adams, a man twice convicted of murder who spent 34 years in prison. He announced Tuesday the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit that will include members of his office and of Innocence Project-New Orleans.
Though he was slim on details, with a fuller announcement planned for next week, the unit is slated to review questionable convictions more systematically.
Cannizzaro said the two organizations have been working for about six months to solidify the plan, which he later said “does a couple of things. It ensures convictions from the past, and it gets out those very few people who may be incarcerated and truly be innocent.”
City Councilman Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney, said he is working to find dedicated funding for lawyers “who will be assigned just to this work.”
Williams, who along with Councilwoman Stacy Head introduced Cannizzaro on Tuesday night, said the new team will “provide a certain level of credibility” to the community in pursuing problematic convictions.
Caroline Milne, a staff attorney for Innocence Project-New Orleans, said many DAs’ offices have their own conviction review teams, but there are few in the country working in tandem with an outside group.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she said, adding that Adams’ case was “the catalyst but not the cause.”
In the audience Tuesday night were several Criminal Court judges, all of whom are up for re-election, as well as U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and newly sworn-in interim NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison. Mayor Mitch Landrieu offered his support for Cannizzaro in brief opening remarks.
The district attorney spent much of his speech recalling what he described as a disaster he walked into, with many violent offenders walking free because prosecutors couldn’t make charging decisions fast enough, plus chilly relations with police and a refusal rate for cases “that for the past two decades had also spiraled out of control.”
Indeed, figures from the Metropolitan Crime Commission show that prior district attorneys refused cases at about a 50 percent clip. Cannizzaro quickly brought the acceptance rate above 80 percent, drawing heavy criticism from some criminal defense lawyers in the process.
The criticism remains over allegedly hardball tactics by a district attorney who frequently invokes the state’s habitual offender law to jack up sentences for convicted offenders.
However, supporters, including Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche, have lauded the DA for a felony “arrest-to-conviction rate” that has risen sharply under his watch, indicating a more effective system.
Far less combative than in earlier speeches — including one in 2011 in which he publicly pressured the dozen Criminal Court judges to work harder — Cannizzaro touted gains in his victim/witness program and other areas that he said have bred more confidence in the office, and perhaps a greater willingness for people to come forward.
He called the system “more robust, more aggressive, more modern and most importantly fairer than its predecessor.” He also noted the recent shooting blocks away, saying, “We should sear the images of those young children from Burgundy Street into our minds as a stark reminder that our work is not over until every — and I do mean every — child in New Orleans can play safely in front of his or her home without the threat of gunfire.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.