Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro could hardly be faulted for declining an invitation to attend last week's premiere of “Guilty Until Proven Guilty" at the New Orleans Film Festival.
Cannizzaro plays a starring role in the documentary on race and criminal justice in New Orleans, though not one he would have chosen.
The film amounts to a 52-minute attack on his “unyielding” pursuit of convictions and long prison terms — all set to music by New Orleans jazz composer Terence Blanchard, with an introduction from pop superstar Usher. The film took top honors this month at the Los Angeles Documentary Film Festival.
Inside the Contemporary Arts Center on Tuesday, a partisan crowd of about 200 people met Cannizzaro's first appearance on screen with hisses. Chortles followed. By the end of a panel discussion afterward, City Council President Jason Williams had announced to an approving audience that he is running for district attorney in 2020.
It was that kind of night.
Filmmaker Harry Moses, a former director and producer for CBS News and “60 Minutes,” received a $650,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to make the film, which chronicles one young black defendant's troubled route through the New Orleans justice system.
Tim Conerly professed innocence after he was booked in the 2014 armed robbery of a New Orleans pedicab driver and his three passengers in the French Quarter.
He tried to hang himself in the Orleans Parish jail, where he languished for two years before facing a grim choice: plead guilty and serve five more years or risk a minimum 49-year sentence if he went to trial, lost and prosecutors invoked the habitual-offender law.
No district attorney in Louisiana forces defendants to make that choice more often than Cannizzaro, at least through 2015. Nine in 10 habitual-offender sentences in Orleans Parish are leveled against black defendants. Conerly, who had a prior conviction for a break-in, agonized, then took the deal.
The film explores other controversies as well, including Cannizzaro’s former use of "bogus subpoenas" to prod witnesses to submit to interviews.
One exchange with Cannizzaro drew clipped laughter from the audience Tuesday.
Moses: “Is the criminal justice system in your opinion inherently unfair to poor people, to black people, here in New Orleans?”
Other Cannizzaro critics get plenty of screen time, including Emily Maw, of the Innocence Project New Orleans, and Conerly's public defender at the time, Will Snowden.
But more often than not, it's Williams, a criminal defense attorney, who gets first crack at rebutting the district attorney on screen.
The rhetoric is familiar to New Orleans politics watchers, but that doesn’t mean the film will get local TV airplay.
WYES has declined Moses' request to air the film, calling it “not a proper fit for our audience and for representing PBS and our station's objectives,” according to an email sent to Moses.
Louisiana Public Broadcasting also turned it down, citing a “strong, one-sided view” that “would present a problem."
Despite the pushback, Moses said he still hopes to broadcast the film locally before seeking national distribution.
He also said he regretted that Cannizzaro — who agreed to a pair of interviews for the movie and is prominently featured in it — didn't attend the premiere.
“I think I treated him fairly,” Moses said. “He told me afterwards that he was sorry he did (the interviews). I don’t know what he was expecting.”