A local watchdog group is demanding that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office stop arresting victims in sexual assault and domestic violence cases in order to force them to testify.
In one case last year, a woman who had accused a man of rape was arrested and held in jail for eight days.
In a report released Tuesday, the group Court Watch NOLA argued that prosecutors should curb such arrests, which are carried out using so-called material witness warrants. And in the case of sexual assault and domestic violence, the group said, such warrants should never be employed.
“We really think that it’s up to the DA’s Office to take the trauma of the victim into consideration,” said Simone Levine, the group's executive director. “We think that in cases of sex offense and domestic violence, that it’s really just not worth bringing the victim in through an incarceratory facility.”
The group said there were at least 30 cases in which Orleans prosecutors obtained material witness warrants in 2016, and six cases in which victims were arrested.
Those cases represent a tiny fraction of the roughly 5,000 new felony cases that come through the door at Criminal District Court every year, according to Metropolitan Crime Commission reports.
In a statement, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman dismissed the Court Watch NOLA report as “simply sloppy.” He pointed to a chart in which the group misidentified the number of crime victims who are women. The group later issued a corrected version of the report.
“According to Court Watch NOLA, the DA’s Office arrested six people on material witness warrants in 2016, but only one of these warrants was issued for a victim in either a sex crime or domestic violence case," said Bowman, the spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. "The district attorney is far more concerned with the numbers 55 and 204, which are, respectively, the number of people murdered and shot in New Orleans in 2017.”
In the rape case, prosecutors said they could not find the accuser in a case in which the defendant was charged with second-degree rape and second-degree battery.
The victim was held in jail for eight days before the warrant against her was dropped. The defendant was ultimately convicted of second-degree battery, according to court records. Online court files do not make clear whether the victim testified.
Half of the 30 material witness warrants tracked in 2016 were for victims of crimes and half were for witnesses, Court Watch NOLA said.
In one case, a witness in an attempted murder case was held for 179 days because his failure to testify violated the terms of his probation, the report said.
The report said that warrants were obtained for women who made accusations in a sexual battery and second-degree kidnapping case and in an aggravated assault and domestic abuse battery case. Neither woman was actually arrested.
Court Watch NOLA said it believes more material witness warrants may have been issued in 2016, but it was difficult to track such cases in court records. Bowman said the DA's Office does not keep a count.
The court observation group acknowledged that prosecutors are often put in a difficult position by reluctant witnesses. They must decide whether to arrest the victim or witness or to drop a case and allow a criminal to go free. The dilemma is particularly thorny in gang violence cases, since they present a clear threat to the larger community.
The group said the DA's Office should issue a public protocol to make clear when it will seek material witness warrants.
One law professor who has written about the use of material witness warrants said she was surprised to hear that prosecutors had issued one in a rape case.
“I think that most jurisdictions don’t want to get the reputation that you have to issue warrants to prosecute either sexual assault or domestic violence cases. A lot of advocates see material witness warrants as a way of victimizing the victims,” said Geneva Brown, a professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
Brown said the trend in sexual assault and domestic violence cases in recent years has been to offer victims support services, such as an advocate who can guide a victim through the judicial process or compensation for transportation.
“If (material witness warrants) are being issued, even in just a handful of cases, what message are you sending to other victims of sexual assault?” Brown said. “Other victims may not come forward if they know this is how they’re going to be treated.”
Levine said she was not aware of any study tracking the use of material witness warrants in other jurisdictions. However, Jefferson Parish prosecutors have employed the tactic in at least one recent case.
In February, Xevion Davis was booked on a material witness warrant in order to force him to testify before a grand jury in the killing of his 10-month-old son in Marrero.