In a perfect world there would never be the need for a material witness warrant. Despite unacceptable and unrealistic policies fronted by the City Council and current administration that place politics above public safety, my office’s use of these warrants remains a last resort.
Under my administration, the DA’s office has significantly increased the size of its Victim/Witness Assistance unit, which provides not only counseling services but also relocation and security services for victims and witnesses. When I took office, the unit was servicing about 300 people. My counselors, who are now required to possess a master’s degree in counseling or social work, now service approximately 3,000 individuals at any given time. Recent budget cuts by the council have placed a strain on this and every other unit in my office.
While the council claims that it is focused on public safety, their method of triaging problems leaves many unanswered questions. According to the report of Court Watch NOLA (CWN), the DA’s office only arrested a single person on a material witness warrant who was either a victim in a case involving sexual assault or domestic violence (DV) in an entire year. However, 15 people have been shot and 7 murdered in a recent six-day span in New Orleans. As of May 2, there had been more days in 2017 where four or more people had been shot (21) than days where no one had been shot (19). Why is the City Council not focusing their attention on a violent crime problem that is spiraling out of control and an NOPD homicide clearance rate that is rapidly declining?
While I appreciate the council’s view that my office can rely on “other available evidence” to obtain convictions in DV cases in which the victim is uncooperative, not a single councilmember has prosecuted a case in Criminal District Court. In a recent DV case in which the victim refused to testify, a judge found the defendant not guilty. She opined that the verdict was legally mandated because of the refusal of the victim to appear.
When deciding whether or not to obtain such a warrant, I must balance the concerns of the witness with the safety of a community that is being torn apart by violent crime. In each of the six cases identified by CWN, my office had to choose between seeking the warrant or dismissing a case and thus releasing a dangerous predator back on the streets.
However, the DA’s office sees the violent collateral damage of the cycle of retribution caused by a dysfunctional system that fails to bring violent offenders to justice. In a recent murder case, a jailed witness testified that he refused to cooperate until his arrest because he planned to take care of the defendant on the streets. In breaking the cycle of retaliation, these warrants frequently save a witness’s life — literally and figuratively.
Leon A. Cannizzaro Jr.
The New Orleans City Council on Thursday blasted District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office …