Council, DA blast each other over material witness bonds

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Updated: Feb. 7, 2019 at 5:21 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Calling it a barbaric practice, the New Orleans City Council approved a resolution Thursday (Feb. 7) asking the D.A. and other law-enforcement representatives to stop jailing victims in order to compel their testimony.

“I’m going to repeat this so he hears me: It is mysognistic, barbaric and despicable,” said Council Chairman Jason Williams, referring to Orleans D.A. Leon Cannizzaro, who Williams hopes to unseat.

The council debated a resolution asking the D.A. to stop seeking the approval of judges to jail witnesses under material witness bonds, calling the practice a violation of civil rights.

“The idea of jailing a victim, to me, you don’t have to have a degree in nuclear physics to think that’s wrong,” said Council Member Jay Banks.

Court Watch NOLA says in 2016, 19 material witness warrants were issued, with seven arrests. In 2017, those numbers went down, with seven warrants issued and three arrested.

“For two years, court watchers have sat in court and seen crime victims be forced to testify wearing orange jumpsuits,” said Simone Levine with Court Watch NOLA.

Prosecutors say it’s often the only way to compel witness testimony, especially in cases of domestic violence where the victims’ safety is in jeopardy

But witness after witness at Thursday’s meeting said it needs to stop.

"One victim is too many to jail...this is an issue I've addressed with the D.A. for years," said Mary Claire Landry with the Family Justice Center.

“When you consider the added egregiousness about women being incarcerated by the same law enforcement that’s supposed to protect them, we must speak out,” said Barbara Kaplinsky with the National Council of Jewish Women.

After one hour of debate, the resolution calling for material witness bonds to end passed on the seven- nothing vote.

This resolutions by itself doesn't have much power so the focus now shifts to Baton Rouge.

The council plans to present a united front, along with the ACLU, in an effort to adopt laws banning the arrest of witnesses, to compel their testimony.

"This D.A. is an outlier in many respects, he has used this, and it's against best practice, and considered morally reprehensible," said Alanah Hebert, with the ACLU.

Late this afternoon, the D.A. had this response to today’s vote: “The criminal defense attorney who heads the council based this theatre on statements put forth 2 years ago.” Cannizzaro added, “We have neither the desire, or authority to jail any victims or witness.”

Cannizzaro says he’s pushed to jail witnesses 28 times in the past five years, and in two cases, the witnesses were victims in sex crime cases. Most of the others were witnesses in murder or attempted murder cases. He says he has not pushed for a material witness bond since 2017.

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