The top deputy in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office ordered staffers in 2014 to use fake subpoenas that looked like real court documents, according to an email obtained in connection with a federal lawsuit.
“This came directly from the top of the organization,” said Civil Rights Corps attorney Katie Chamblee-Ryan, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “This was a consistent policy and practice of the office. This was not a few rogue prosecutors.”
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has said the so-called “DA subpoenas,” exposed by The Lens in April, had been used for decades. However, a version sent in 1999 was less misleading, in part because it didn’t have the word “SUBPOENA” printed at the top in big, bold letters or threaten jail.
This email doesn’t say when the document was altered to look more official, but it does put a date on when the latest version went into effect: May 13, 2014.
The message is cited in an amended complaint filed Wednesday by lawyers from the Civil Rights Corps and the ACLU. A spokesman for Cannizzaro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The groups are suing Cannizzaro and 11 of his prosecutors for using fake subpoenas and jailing witnesses and crime victims for allegedly failing to cooperate in cases. They say the practice amounted to coercion and violated people’s civil rights.
In the email, an aide to First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin told staff, including prosecutors, to use a new template for DA subpoenas. That’s what they called the phony subpoenas that ordered reluctant witnesses to appear for private interviews at the DA’s office.
“Please see the attached/revised DA Subpoena to be used from this date forward. Please disregard any older forms of subpoenas. Do not use any of the older subpoenas. As per the First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin, please save the attached in a folder on your computer. Thank you,” wrote Martin’s assistant.
The attached document matches those The Lens has reported on previously. Besides the misleading heading, it threatens jail and fines if the recipient doesn’t obey it and purports to have been issued under state law.
Louisiana law does allow prosecutors to compel witnesses to appear for private interviews, but they must get authorization from a judge first. In a number of cases, Orleans Parish prosecutors didn’t do that, opting to send phony ones instead.
The DA’s office stopped using fake subpoenas the day The Lens reported on the practice.
Cannizzaro’s spokesman has said the DA didn’t know when the document was changed to include the word “SUBPOENA” and the threats of jail time and fines. That’s still not clear because the 2014 email doesn’t describe the “older forms of subpoenas.”
That email appears to have been directed to all employees of the DA’s office.
One of the recipients was Donna Andrieu, Cannizzaro’s chief of appeals. In May, Andrieu denied The Lens’ public records request for DA subpoenas issued by the office, saying it didn’t track the use of the documents and they would be too hard to find.
Chief of Trials David Pipes testified that he had seen them, but they were used rarely. Plaintiffs attorneys and The Lens have found 15 in the last few years, including some cases in which defense lawyers tried to bring the practice to judges’ attention.
Another document unearthed in the lawsuit appears to be a training presentation by Pipes called, “That’s Not What Happened! Witness Recantation Issues.”
The presentation calls witnesses who hurt prosecutors’ cases by recanting their testimony “traitors.”
“From impeachment to imprisonment, this session will cover what to do when your witnesses suddenly become their witnesses,” it says.
“It’s really disturbing to see them making fun of people with addiction problems,” Chamblee-Ryan said. “A lot of people are putting themselves in great danger” by offering themselves as witnesses. “They deserve the utmost respect for that.”
But most troubling to the plaintiffs is the discussion of tactics to deal with problem witnesses. The presentation describes which criminal charges can be pressed against witnesses, including perjury and obstruction of justice.
Cannizzaro’s office has been criticized for using these strongarm tactics when witnesses recant after their testimony results in defendants being wrongfully convicted.
Former Orleans Parish public defender Thomas Frampton told The Lens about an incident in which he informed Assistant District Attorney Sarah Dawkins that two key witnesses in an assault case planned to recant their statement identifying the defendant.
According to Frampton, she replied, “You know how it goes in our office. Recantations mean someone goes to jail: the defendant or the victim.”
There’s also a handout on material witness warrants, which prosecutors can use to arrest witnesses who aren’t cooperating. Chamblee-Ryan noted that the presentation focuses on witnesses who recant, not those who refuse to show up for court hearings.
However, the first page of the presentation does say one of the ways a witness will “betray you” is by not showing up.
She said the handout suggests that Pipes advised prosecutors to request those warrants — or threaten to — when witnesses don’t want to testify the way prosecutors want.
In at least two criminal cases Pipes cited in his presentation, court records show that material witness warrants were issued for witnesses. It wasn’t clear from online court records what reason the prosecutor cited in seeking those warrants.
“It demonstrates a fundamentally disrespectful and adversarial attitude toward victims of crime and witnesses of crime,” Chamblee-Ryan said. “People said they felt like criminals when working with the District Attorney’s Office. This is where that comes from.”
The amended complaint adds Dawkins as a defendant and adds a new plaintiff: a victim in an assault case who, according to the suit, was wrongly jailed for failing to cooperate with prosecutors.