The race for district attorney of New Orleans is not until November 2020 — a year after this year's race for governor — but already two of the leading potential candidates are taking political shots at one another.
City Council president Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney, authored a resolution on Feb. 7 blasting two-term District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for his practice of jailing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to ensure they testify at trial.
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Williams, who finished third in the 2008 DA's race, announced last year that he will seek the office again in 2020. Cannizzaro, who won the 2008 contest, has not yet announced his intentions — but he's firing back at Williams.
The council unanimously adopted Williams' resolution amid calls for state lawmakers to prohibit the practice of jailing victims on "material witness warrants" issued to compel their testimony.
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The DA has drawn fire on several fronts for his treatment of victims - from issuing "fake subpoenas" to jailing victims to compel testimony. Cannizzaro announced in 2017 that his office would cease issuing fake subpoenas, but the issue dogs him still. It triggered a federal lawsuit against him by a handful of plaintiffs, including a domestic violence (DV) victim who was jailed for five days.
Cannizzaro was not present when Williams' resolution passed. At a news conference later that day, he defended the practice of occasionally jailing DV victims - as a means of protecting them from their abusers.
Williams and Cannizzaro's exchange offers voters an advance peek at what likely will be the hottest issue of a white-hot DA's race.
"Orleans Parish [voters] thought they elected a Democrat named Leon to be the DA. … What we have instead is an embrace of President Trump's 'dog whistle phrases,'" Williams' statement began. Later, it added, "The idea that a prosecutor would jail victims of domestic and sexual violence is misogynistic, barbaric, and despicable."
At-Large Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who was a leading advocate for DV victims as a state legislator, chimed in. "At the end of the day, jailing innocent victims just sends the message to these victims that the criminal justice system isn't here to protect you. It's maybe even here to cause you deeper harm," Moreno said.
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Cannizzaro called Williams' resolution "theater" based on "stale" and "disingenuous" allegations. In a statement, the DA said his office cannot jail anyone - only judges can do that "in accordance with state law." He said he knows of only 28 witnesses jailed out of more than 85,000 cases. "Of that number, 21 were involved in cases of murder or attempted murder; two involved sex crimes. In each instance, the witness testimony was deemed critical to preventing a dangerous offender from walking free to victimize others."
The DA called the council resolution "misguided" and predicted it would "greatly embolden domestic abusers, child abusers and sex criminals to intimidate, threaten, harass and coerce their victims and witnesses into staying silent."
The national debate over criminal justice reform focuses on how best to reduce jail populations by rehabilitating non-violent offenders. In New Orleans, the DA's race will be all about how far prosecutors should go to put violent offenders behind bars. Stay tuned.