At 36, Graham Bosworth, a defense attorney and former assistant district attorney, was not yet born when incumbent Frank Marullo was first appointed to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court 40 years ago, in 1974.
To hear Bosworth tell it, little else has changed at the courthouse since then.
In an interview with The Lens, Bosworth said he’s running for Marullo’s seat because he wants to modernize courthouse practices — putting court schedules online and allowing attorneys to submit motions via email. Bosworth also comes to the race with a record of criticizing the state’s harsh sentencing laws, which he believes may be unconstitutional.
“I’ve been involved in the criminal justice system for about a decade, and I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with Criminal District Court and the way it operates,” Bosworth said in an interview with The Lens. “That’s not necessarily a reflection of the people there, but is a commentary on the infrastructure and the investment into technology, or the lack thereof, in the courthouse.”
He described one of his first courtroom experiences in Orleans Parish, a standing-room only crowd — lawyers, witnesses, victims. They were all lumped together for the 9 a.m. docket. No one knew which cases were set other than his own. No one knew if his case would actually be heard that day, he said.
“You walk in, you have witnesses that have taken off time from work in order to be there,” he said. “You have police officers who aren’t on the street, or have just wrapped up their overnight shift and they haven’t gone home. And they’re sitting in a courtroom.”
That continues to this day. People don’t know if their case will come up at 9 a.m. or 3 p.m. Lawyers, who may have cases pending in other courtrooms, and police officers, who may need to get back to work, may not be in court when their cases are finally called. That leads to more delays, and witnesses and victims have to come again.
Bosworth said the solution to the problem begins with fairly easy, inexpensive investments in technology, starting with an online calendar for the section.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot in the 21st century to have a website with a publicly accessible calendar. So you know there’s 60 cases on the docket today — boy, maybe getting there at 9 a.m. isn’t necessarily worthwhile,” he said.
He also said he would accept lawyers’ motions via email rather than just in open court. That would free up time for hearings that require attorneys, witnesses and defendants to be in the courtroom.
“Both the prosecution and defense have the opportunity to say, here’s a realistic date for motions, here is a realistic date for trial,” he said.
Bosworth, who has served on the Louisiana Sentencing Commission and the Louisiana Bar Association’s Subcommittee on Incarceration Reform, criticized the high rates of incarceration in New Orleans and Louisiana.
“We spend something, to the tune of $800 million a year incarcerating people,” he said. “But our crime rates haven’t gone down.”
At a recent candidate forum, Bosworth said he had “constitutional issues” with the state’s habitual offender law. The law allows prosecutors to charge previously convicted defendants as repeat offenders, resulting in long sentences.
Expanding on that, he told The Lens that prosecutors pile on habitual offender charges to force guilty pleas, freeing prosecutors of the burden of proving their cases.
A defendant with one prior conviction may be innocent of the charge against him. But the prosecutor will tell him that if he takes the case to trial, the District Attorney’s Office will pursue the case under the habitual offender law. At that point, Bosworth said, “You’re no longer going to be entitled probation. You’re looking at mandatory jail time.”
Bosworth was an appellate attorney for the District Attorney’s Office, so while he never initiated a repeat-offender case, he did have to argue to uphold them on appeal. He said he had mixed feelings about doing that.
Bosworth did not say if he would resist repeat-offender prosecutions if he’s elected as a judge, but he said that in “extreme situations,” judges have the discretion to decide that a sentence is excessive. Still, he said, as a judge he would have the responsibility to uphold state law.
Bosworth said he is a strong supporter of the city’s Pretrial Services program. It tries to reduce the jail population by screening arrestees to see who’s likely to appear in court and recommending lower and non-financial bonds for them.
Bosworth was critical of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s recent practice of charging multiple defendants, as many as 20, under a once-obscure state racketeering statute. This overextends the Public Defenders Office, Bosworth said, which must turn to private attorneys working on contract or pro bono. These cases end up clogging the courts.
Bosworth said he volunteered to work pro bono on a racketeering case. “It took months just to find enough attorneys to volunteer their time in order to represent the defendants in the case,” he said.
“Yes, it’s effective for the DA’s office,” he continued. “Yes, it helps the DA’s office affect pleas, and in their position to fight crime. But yes, it’s a huge problem for the courts. The courts aren’t really in a position to handle it. I think you’re watching that play out.”