New Orleans DA Jails Victims For Refusal to Testify, Report Says

New Orleans DA Jails Victims For Refusal to Testify, Report Says

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In 2016, a rape victim was jailed for eight days because she refused to attend Criminal District Court in New Orleans and testify on behalf of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

She was held in the Orleans Justice Center — the same facility where her alleged aggressor was also being held, according to the criminal justice watchdog group. 

The victim was placed in jail because of something called a material witness warrant, which allows a victim who has chosen not to come forward or cooperate in a case to be arrested for failing to testify when subpoenaed.

The prevalence of just such warrants was among many criticisms the local group had of court-related proceedings in New Orleans last year, according to a 38-page report released on April 11.

Simone Levine, the group’s executive director, said the rape victim was one of at least six arrested and incarcerated for failing to come to court and testify on behalf of the district attorney’s office.

In the report, Levine said the decision to issue a material witness arrest warrant should never be taken “lightly.”

“When making such a decision, an assistant district attorney should consider factors including: the seriousness of the offense, the strength of the case, and the public interest in punishing the defendant and deterring others from committing similar crimes,” the report read. “A prosecutor should also consider the trauma and fear that is often associated with being a victim of a crime, the victim’s fear of retribution from the aggressor or the community, and the great harm it causes the victim to be arrested and jailed in a corrections facility.”

Crime victims were also incarcerated for failing to testify in four attempted murder cases and one aggravated assault case.

The report suggested that such material witness warrants did little to help solve cases or prevent such serious crimes as murder. Between 2015 and 2016, the city’s murder rate rose from 164 to 175 murders but the murder clearance rate fell from 64 to 46, the report found.

Ultimately, the group recommended that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office discontinue the incarceration of domestic violence victims and sex crime victims on material witness warrants, calling the refusal to jail victims “not unprecedented” among other courts.

In non-domestic violence and non-sex offense cases, the watchdog group suggested prosecutors follow a public release protocol that includes the different risk factors considered in cases before a material witness warrant is requested to arrest a victim. The protocol could, for example, weigh the competing goals of victim safety and emotional trauma to the victim, as well as offender accountability and public safety, the report said.

“With police often finding community members unwilling to speak about the crimes they are victimized by, the threat of arrest and incarceration of victims can only exacerbate this problem,” it continued.

It wasn’t the only issue Court Watch NOLA observed regarding victims in Orleans Criminal District Court. Altogether, the report said, more than 30 victims approached court watchers to complain about their treatment in court, inquire about their rights or request that the organization monitor their case.

The report didn’t just discuss how victims were treated. Court Watch NOLA covered a wide range of topics, including trial proceedings, court professionalism and protections of the sixth amendment, which gives the right to a public trial without unnecessary delay, the right to a lawyer and the right to an impartial jury.

Notably, the group found what was described as a “lack of physical, scientific and eyewitness identification evidence” used in criminal cases.

For every day a Court Watch NOLA volunteer observed a trial, 57 percent of the trials did not have scientific, physical or eyewitness identification evidence.

The group underscored the importance of evidence by presenting statistics about wrongful convictions and exonerations. Louisiana has been labeled the second highest per capita rate of wrongful conviction in the country, and Orleans Parish is the biggest exonerator of wrongful conviction cases per capita of all the counties and parishes with a population over 300,000.

To rectify the situation, Court Watch NOLA recommended that more resources be “earmarked” to train and hire New Orleans Police Department Crime Lab personnel. The report also suggested that costs for forensic experts be covered for both the prosecution as well as the Orleans Public Defenders.

“It is important that law enforcement has collected and preserved all possible evidence available to prosecute a case,” Levine wrote in a release.

Levine also criticized the racial makeup of most juries observed.

According to a recent study out of Tufts University, she said, multiracial juries “appraise evidence more accurately.”

When Court Watch NOLA examined juror demographics, volunteers found that only 44 percent of the Orleans Parish Criminal District jurors were African-American, despite the fact that the demographic makes up 56 percent of the Orleans Parish population.

In comparison, caucasians made up 33 percent of the city’s population, according to recent data, but represented almost 50 percent of jurors.

To get the 2016 data, Court Watch NOLA trained 130 volunteers called court watchers who made over 1,110 visits to Orleans Parish Criminal Court, the report said.

While there, the watchers gathered data on transparency, professionalism, performance, delays and fairness on over 7,000 cases.

On average, according to the report, court watchers observed 17 cases per session in 2016, generating over 90 observations per month.

There were some lapses. Marked decreases in observations were noted in August and December, mostly due to holidays and vacations. But 65 percent of court cases were covered, and each observation lasted an average of about three hours. Sometimes, court watchers observed a room for up to nine hours when trials were taking place, advocates said.

All in all, the data collected from court watchers represent over 3,456 hours of court observed across 12 sections of Criminal District Court, for an average of 300 hours of observation per section.

Court Watch NOLA was founded in 2007 by the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, Common Good and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans.