Leon Cannizzaro Out as DA, Ending Dark Chapter in New Orleans Criminal Justice

Photos courtesy of Orleans Parish Criminal Court

As the last day of qualifying ends, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has officially declined to run for a third term, according to NOLA.com. This comes after a second term that was fraught with complaints – civil, criminal, and ethical – against his practices as top law enforcement officer in New Orleans. Mr. Cannizzaro leaves behind a legacy of political entrenchment, cruelty, and, at times, national embarrassment – as his brutal practices made headlines at a time when sentiment favored being “smart on crime, not tough on crime.” 

“Tough on crime,” to describe Mr. Cannizzaro, was an understatement. The ACLU once wrote of Leon Cannizzaro: “As the top law enforcement official in the parish, DA Cannizzaro has flagrantly violated the rights of some of its most vulnerable people: the victims and witnesses of crime. He has perpetrated a scheme of forgery and secrecy, using fake subpoenas and intimidation to illegally coerce and wrongly jail the very members of the community he was supposed to protect.” 

This statement was in reference to the case Singleton v. Cannizzaro, which centered on the use of fake subpoenas. These fake subpoenas were used to pressure victims of crime, including sexual assault and domestic violence, into testifying in court. A federal civil suit even alleges that material witnesses were jailed for disobeying the fake subpoenas.  This is the legacy that Leon Cannizaro leaves behind.

Cannizzaro was first elected District Attorney of Orleans Parish in 2008. Prior to being elected to the DA’s office, Cannizzaro served 17 years as a Criminal Court judge in Orleans Parish. As the judge in Section J, Cannizzaro prided himself on being “America’s Toughest Judge.” His propensity to operate in the grey areas of jurisprudence was often on display in his courtroom. For example, in 2002, a jury failed to convict 16 year-old Frank Smith of aggravated rape; instead it found him guilty of attempted rape and armed robbery. Since Smith could not be sentenced to life for attempted rape, Cannizzaro sentenced him to 99 years for stealing $5 from the woman’s purse.

As District Attorney, Cannizzaro employed the use of habitual offender prosecutions, also known as “multi-bill.” This is the practice of weaponizing a criminal defendant’s past record against them to pressure a plea deal or face a significantly increased sentence if convicted at trial. Under Cannizzaro’s tenure, Orleans Parish once led the state in the use of the habitual offender statute. He was also known to routinely transfer juvenile cases to adult court, resulting in many juveniles being convicted and sentenced as adults. The imprisonment and trial of juveniles as adults is considered a major human rights issue globally, with the United States as the chief offender.

Courtesy of the Orleans Parish District Attorney.

 During his tenure as DA, Cannizzaro’s office has been sued multiple times, including a federal civil suit and an investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. According to that suit, filed in part by the victim rights organization Silence is Violence, plaintiffs alleged that Mr. Cannizzaro jailed 10 crime victims and witnesses for failing to testify against perpetrators. Here are some of the allegations:

  • Cannizzaro’s office issued an arrest warrant for a child sex trafficking victim, who was jailed for 89 days, including Christmas and New Year’s. 
  • Cannizzaro’s office issued an arrest warrant for a rape victim, who was jailed for 12 days
  • Cannizzaro’s office arrested plaintiff Renata Singleton for failing to testify against her ex boyfriend. The ex boyfriend was given a $3,500 bond for domestic violence and avoided any jail sentence. Ms. Singleton was given a $100,000 bond and had to appear in court as an inmate
  • Other witnesses arrested under Cannizzaro’s warrants were given bonds as high as $500,000 and sometimes they were given no bond. The sexual abuse suspects were often given a far lower bond. 
  • Marc Mitchell, a victim of multiple gunshots, was arrested and given a $50,000 bond, after he felt that Cannizzaro’s office was pressuring him to testify in a way other than his recollection of the events. 
  • Lazonia Baham, whose daughter’s boyfriend was murdered, was jailed for eight days and given a $100,000 bond because she allegedly would not communicate with Cannizzaro’s office. Ms. Baham has an eighth grade education. 

Mr. Cannizzaro has repeatedly denied that anyone was jailed for failing to speak to his office. 

Cannizzaro has derided recent measures to limit the size of the jail population in New Orleans, calling it a “grand social experiment espoused by sheltered academics and naive politicians.” Despite this, New Orleans has seen a drastic decrease in murders over the past three years. This has tracked with the steady decrease in the inmate population at the Orleans Justice Center – now standing at below 1,000 defendants. Popular opinion, it appears, has moved beyond Cannizzaro’s prosecutorial philosophy.

With Cannizzaro out, the only three qualifying candidates are Councilmember-at-Large Jason Williams, Judge Keva Landrum, and Judge Arthur Hunter (ret.). Despite rumors that Judge Paul Bonin would run with Cannizzaro’s backing, he has instead chosen to retire without seeking another office. 

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