Steps away from the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office May 26, rape survivors and advocates called out what they said was chronic negligence and apathy towards sexual assault cases within the New Orleans criminal justice system. A new group, Judicial Reforms For Sex Crimes (JSRC), urges police and prosecutors to end discrimination against survivors of sexual assault, and encourages other survivors to share their stories. Several survivors shared their stories and invited others to do the same.
Maria Treme revisited her assault at the Country Club in 2014, from the widely publicized account of the New Orleans Police Department's gross mishandling of her case to her present pain and frustration with NOPD and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. "The only reason I went to the media is because I was put on a shelf and forgotten about," said Treme, who said NOPD detectives had shamed and threatened her. "I don't want another survivor to end up hitting their head against a brick wall."
In a statement after the press conference, the District Attorney's office said this case "has never been presented to my office by the NOPD. The NOPD has neither made an arrest nor have they presented the case to the DA’s office as a non-arrest consult."
That same year, the New Orleans Inspector General released a damning report looking into NOPD's Sex Crimes Unit, revealing potentially hundreds of sexual assaults had been reported incorrectly or not at all. The report exposed a culture of "indifference to our citizens that won’t be tolerated," one that NOPD Chief Michael Harrison has worked to address over the last several years under the department's federal consent decree.
"The problem is so deeply ingrained," Treme said, "that it feels so hopeless."
"Just because you aren't burying victims in the ground any more doesn't mean you can lock us in the basement," Crain said. "How can you look any survivor in the eye? You do not get to claim you are tough on crime when Louisiana revised statutes have clearly defined rape as a crime ... You have stifled our voices and obstructed justice for too long, and I’ve decided you no longer get to enjoy the silence your victims have allowed."
"My office is still screening one of the cases discussed this afternoon," the DA's statement said. "I have asked the victim in this case to refrain from publically discussing the case until after our screening process has been completed as her public comments could inhibit our ability to prosecute the case. Unfortunately, the victim has declined this request."
The accusations against Cannizzaro follow reports of "fake subpoenas" sent by his office, as reported by Charles Maldonado with The Lens. The Lens and the ACLU filed similar lawsuits against the office to turn over them over.
Cannizzaro also recently defended potentially jailing victims of violent crimes, including sexual assault, for refusing to testify. The ACLU said Cannizzaro's defense displays "a striking lack of empathy for the victims and a lack of understanding of the realities of incarceration."
April's Courtwatch NOLA report criticized the DA's issuance of material witness warrants that force victims to testify in court. The report found 15 cases in which prosecutors issued material arrest warrants to get victims and witnesses to testify. In a statement from Cannizzaro spokesman Chris Bowman, only six cases resulted in jail time - one of which was for a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence.
In a statement following the press conference, Cannizzaro pointed to an underfunded office that's operating $600,000 shorter than the DA's proposed budget. "Elected leaders in the city of New Orleans cut my budget because they believed that we prosecute too many cases," Cannizzaro said.
He also pointed to this week's successful guilty plea from a rapist who likely will receive a 40-year sentence. "This is but one example of the countless convictions that my office has obtained in cases of sexual assault," he said. Cannizzaro also said the Metropolitan Crime Commission reports that the DA "dramatically increased" the felony arrest to conviction rate in cases of rape and sexual assault since he took office, and said, "In 2016, my office accepted for prosecution 80% of those cases in which the NOPD made an arrest."
"The District Attorney’s office remains undeterred in its fight against violent criminals - including sexual predators - despite the efforts of out of town political organizations who are attacking the office because they believe my office puts too many violent offenders in prison," he said.
Speakers weren't satisfied with incremental change within the criminal justice system and are calling for a culture shift to ensure survivors are heard and believed and their stories are taken seriously. Speakers also cited apathetic police who don't expect the DA's office to devote resources to prosecution, with the DA as the "hub" within the city's multi-pronged wheel of justice.
"You can’t claim to be tough on crime when you’re soft on rape," said JRSC's Jesse Manley. "We can’t have restorative justice with Cannizzaro as district attorney."
"We are the sparks that will light the fire that will burn rape culture to the ground," said Candace Huber with sexual assault survivors' advocacy group Amplify NOLA. "All of our stories are important, and our stories will encourage others to share theirs."
Click here for a list of sexual assault resources in New Orleans.