Federal appeals court says Orleans judge owes $300K tax bill _lowres

Harry Cantrell

There are many buildings in New Orleans that evoke its storied past, but the CVS Pharmacy at Canal and Carondelet is not one of them.

Erected in 1949 as a Gus Mayer store, it hardly ranks as one of the city's architectural gems either.

Yet, when a homeless 33-year-old drunk called Matthew Aldous used a blue permanent marker to daub graffiti on the side of the store, the reactions could hardly have been more overwrought if vandals had been caught scrawling MAGA on the walls of Monticello.

Although his annotation could not have been hard to wash off the pharmacy's undistinguished exterior, Aldous was booked with criminal damage to a historic property, a felony that carries a jail sentence of up to two years. Two months after that palpably idiotic charge was laid, he remains behind bars awaiting trial because Magistrate Harry Cantrell, yet again, set a patently unaffordable bond.

Aldous could never be sentenced to so long in jail if he ever were convicted of causing minor damage to a business establishment. The presumption of innocence is meaningless so long as Cantrell continues to impose excessive bail.

Aldous was not in court for the bond hearing, because he was apparently in detox, but both his public defender and the city prosecutor stipulated that he is no threat to society. Right now he is, however, a charge on the public purse as an inmate of the city slammer. This is clearly madness. He is a lost soul who needs help, not the full force of our clunking and expensive criminal justice system.

Cantrell decided to ignore the assurances of counsel and declare that Aldous was too a threat to society. He then decided that, since two municipal attachments were outstanding against Aldous, he was a flight risk, although a vagrant who adds graffiti to a pharmacy in full view of the cops probably wouldn't last long on the lam. Cantrell then set bail at $10,000, which was obviously tantamount to an order of indefinite pre-trial detention.

These shenanigans were supposed to stop last year after civil rights lawyers filed suit against Cantrell, who might best be described as the court's bagman. Cantrell has long refused to release defendants on their own recognizance, insisting on commercial bonds, from which the court's Judicial Expense Fund rakes off a percentage. Naturally, he has always been inclined to charge top dollar, so that defendants who couldn't raise the inflated amounts rotted in jail on the public dime until their cases came up.

Federal judge Eldon Fallon ruled that the constitution requires a judge to consider a defendant's ability to pay when setting a bond, and ordered Cantrell to do so henceforth.

The Aldous case is proof enough that he is disinclined to follow instructions, and the plaintiffs in the suit settled last year have filed a motion asking that Cantrell be held in violation of Fallon's order.

The criminal court in New Orleans has long soaked the poor and had indeed not much choice in the latter since its operations have always been largely funded from fines, fees and a cut of commercial bail bonds. Setting bonds that defendants were unable to meet did not make much sense in terms of the court's finances, but Cantrell was determined to remain the martinet of Tulane and Broad. He made it plain that he would not consider a bond for less than $2,500 for even the poorest defendant.

They don't come much poorer than Aldous, and Cantrell must have been well aware that he was asking the impossible. It is hard to imagine that Cantrell will get away with such a plain abuse of his authority.

But let us not puzzle over constitutional minutiae. What Cantrell does to the likes of Aldous is an offense against common decency. When even a prosecutor thinks a defendant is harmless, locking him up for months before trial is unconscionable. As with any homeless person, chances are his mental health is less than robust. Give the poor man a break.

Correction: Pierre Antoine Dochenet, a French soldier hanged in Louisiana in 1752, was convicted of trying to kill two enslaved black women. Last Sunday's column erroneously suggested he succeeded.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.