Orleans DA’s office under Jason Williams pursuing fewer violent felony cases, study finds
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Orleans Parish prosecutors refused more felony cases than they accepted in the first eight months of District Attorney Jason Williams’ tenure, and have become far less vigorous about holding accountable those accused of violent crimes in the city, a new study by the Metropolitan Crime Commission says.
“Upon taking office, District Attorney Jason Williams promised the public transparency and accountability, and to emphasize prosecuting violent felony offenders,” the MCC said Wednesday (Oct. 13) in a press release accompanying its research report. “Our findings largely show that D.A. Williams has failed to uphold the pledge to prosecute and convict violent felony offenders.”
The report said that while New Orleans police have battled a rising tide in crime by making 1,411 arrests for violent felonies in the eight-month span examined, Williams’ office either refused to prosecute or dismissed 937 violent felony cases in that same time.
Where predecessor Leon A. Cannizzaro Jr.’s administration accepted for prosecution 67 percent of violent felony arrests in 2019 (1,414 of 2,119 cases) and 75 percent in 2020 (1,265 of 1,687 cases), the acceptance rate for violent felony cases under Williams has plunged to 54 percent (447 of 821 cases).
The MCC, a non-partisan nonprofit that has investigated government corruption and evaluated New Orleans’ criminal justice system for more than 60 years, painted a particularly damning portrait of a DA’s office that lost or swept out nearly all of the city’s most experienced prosecutors after Williams took office in mid-January.
After examining more than 19,000 case screening decisions and dispositions, the MCC found that Williams’ office was accepting for prosecution just under 50 percent of all felony cases brought to its door by the NOPD and other law enforcement agencies. In the eight-month period of study between Williams’ Jan. 11 inauguration and Sept. 10, Williams’ office refused 918 felony cases and accepted 907.
That nearly 50-50 split in felony acceptances and refusals marked a drastic departure from the final two years of Cannizzaro’s tenure, when the office moved forward on 71 percent of felony cases in 2019 and 76 percent in 2020.
The MCC said Williams’ handling of violent felony cases has been alarming. Not only did it find 46 percent of violent felony cases being refused by Williams on the front end (Cannizzaro’s office refused just 33 percent of violent felony cases in 2019 and 25 percent in 2020), but the watchdog agency also saw troubling results on the back end of case dispositions.
Cannizzaro’s administration achieved felony convictions in a majority of its felony cases closed (64 percent in 2019 and 54 percent in 2020). But under Williams, only 17 percent of felony cases are ending with a felony conviction. Nearly two-thirds (67 percent) are ending in a dismissal without legal consequences for the defendant. And the MCC said almost one in five of the felony cases dismissed have been for crimes of violence (19 percent).
“The high violent felony dismissal rate is particularly alarming, because victims and witnesses prioritized the safety of the community over their personal risk by cooperating with police so that offenders could be held accountable,” said MCC President Rafael Goyeneche.
Williams did not directly respond to the report. But in a written statement attributed to his first assistant Bob White, his office criticized what it called “cherry-picked data” in an report that “indicates an antagonism to the progressive changes in the criminal legal system that the people of New Orleans voted for, and seeks to cause division when we are working hard with all stakeholders in the criminal legal system to increase safety and justice for New Orleans families.”
Among other key findings in the report:
- Where Cannizzaro’s office accepted assault or battery cases -- most related to domestic violence -- at a rate of 63 percent in 2019 and 73 percent in 2020, Williams’ office is only prosecuting 46 percent of such cases in 2021
- Where armed robbery/robbery cases were accepted at a 71 percent rate in 2019 and 79 percent clip in 2020, only 54 percent of such cases are being prosecuted under Williams
- Williams’ office dismissed 65 percent of felony property crime cases it has disposed of since mid-January
- Where Cannizzaro prosecuted at least 88 percent of narcotics distribution and possession cases in his last two years, Williams is refusing to prosecute four out of five drug possession cases (20 percent acceptance) and nearly six out of 10 drug distribution cases (43 percent acceptance)
In Cannizzaro’s final two years, violent felony cases accepted by prosecutors concluded with convictions of guilty as charged or guilty of a lesser offense at least 83 percent of the time. Under Williams, violent felony defendants are being found guilty as charged just 5 percent of the time, guilty of any offense just 46 percent of the time, and are simply having their cases dismissed 54 percent of the time.
The MCC made two major recommendations in its report. First, it urged Williams to prioritize the prosecution of violent felony offenders.
“The prosecutorial progressivism platform of the Williams administration and protecting public safety need not be mutually exclusive concepts,” the report said. “The rights of victims and citizens are no less significant that the rights of suspects or offenders.”
The commission also recommended Williams develop “a robust diversion program to handle non-violent offenders, rather than dismissing or refusing these otherwise viable cases for expediency or philosophical reasons.”
Williams, a former criminal defense attorney and city councilman who had never prosecuted a case, lost his favorite foil when Cannizzaro announced in July 2020 that he would retire rather than seek a third term. In a four-way race last November, Williams squeaked into a runoff by edging former Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter by 1 percent, or 2,828 votes.
Williams presented himself as a progressive alternative to former prosecutor and Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum when they locked horns in a runoff last December. Williams won 58 percent of that vote and claimed a mandate, although only 26.1 percent of eligible New Orleans voters cast a ballot in the election. Williams was elected on less than 42,000 of nearly 72,000 votes cast.
Whether Williams will be able to complete his six-year term remains an open question. He is still under federal indictment for 11 counts related to tax fraud and is scheduled for trial in just over three months (Jan. 24) at New Orleans’ U.S. District Court. Should Williams be convicted and his law license voided or suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court, he would be ineligible to remain a DA.
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