When certain public officials admit they were wrong, you sit up and take notice because it's so unexpected.
Such was the case last week when New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu apologized to wealthy past supporter Frank Stewart for singling him out for criticism in the long-running Confederate monument controversy. And such was the case recently with another citywide official, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
Marc Mitchell didn't start out as a reluctant witness. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon…
Like Landrieu, Cannizzaro isn't one to wallow in self-doubt. But when the non-profit news site The Lens caught his office dead to right issuing fake subpoenas to reluctant witnesses, there wasn't much he could do but say it wouldn't happen again.
According to the report, the office issued notices that were clearly labeled as subpoenas, and threatened witnesses who did not show up as ordered with the possibility of a fine, or even jail time. The very significant problem here is that the DA's office does not have the authority to issue subpoenas on its own, without a judge's signature. Nor does it have the power to impose the penalties mentioned.
"It was improper for us, it was incorrect for us to label those notices as a subpoena," Cannizzaro told WWL-TV. "That was incorrect. It was improper and I take responsibility for that." (The office could not provide information to the Lens on how many of these documents were actually sent out, which is a whole other problem).
This isn't the only instance of blatant witness bullying by the office to come to light lately. Cannizzaro's also been taken to task for an equally stunning Court Watch NOLA report that found his office had resorting to locking up domestic violence and rape victims to force them to testify in court. The City Council voted 6-1 last week to condemn the practice of issuing these "material witness" warrants. Even Councilwoman Stacy Head, the one dissenting vote, called the practice "horrific."
Controversy over what had been a little-noticed tactic on the part of local prosecutors — se…
The New Orleans City Council on Thursday blasted District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office …
There was no apology from Cannizzaro this time. Instead, he sought to justify his actions, arguing that just one of the six people arrested on these warrants last year involved a domestic violence or rape victim.
"Decisions to seek material witness warrants are not made carelessly. I must balance the concerns of the victim with the safety of a community that is being torn apart by violent crime," Cannizzaro said.
Monday, he doubled down in a letter to the editor that ran in the Advocate. He recounted the many difficulties his office has had securing cooperation and New Orleans' crime problem in general, and wrote that such methods wouldn't be necessary "in a perfect world."
Well, the "perfect world" standard isn't exactly a realistic one. Securing witnesses amid a culture of mistrust is hard, no doubt, but misleading some witnesses and terrorizing others isn't going to improve things.
The public will grant crime-fighters who've won its trust plenty of leeway, but there's a good reason these two reports have resonated. They shock the conscience, and violate the rules of fair play and decency. They contribute to exactly the sort of wariness that makes some witnesses reluctant to testify in the first place.
And they sure don't send a message that victims of domestic violence and sex crimes, who often struggle with the decision to come forward, have reason to place their trust in the office.
Cannizzaro's right that it's often difficult to bring good cases to trial. That's a significant challenge, one the longtime judge knew about before he ran for the job. It's certainly no excuse.