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Week in Review: Civil rights lawsuit over fake subpoenas, witness arrests allowed to go forward, judge rules

Charles Maldonado / The Lens

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro

Civil rights lawsuit over fake subpoenas, witness arrests allowed to go forward, judge rules

A federal lawsuit against Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and several of his prosecutors — alleging that they violated people’s civil rights through the use of fake subpoenas and unlawfully obtained arrest warrants against witnesses and crime victims — will be allowed to go forward.

Calling the use of fake subpoenas cited in the lawsuit an allegation of “systematic fraud,” federal Judge Jane Triche Milazzo on Thursday issued a ruling that rejected much of Cannizzaro’s request that the case be dismissed.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2017 by the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps on behalf of seven people who were issued fake subpoenas, arrested for allegedly failing to cooperate with prosecutors or both.

“I think it’s a huge victory for our clients, the plaintiffs,” said Bruce Hamilton, staff attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. “We’re proud of the plaintiffs for standing up for their rights.”

The suit was based in part on The Lens’ reporting on the office’s use of fake subpoenas.

‘Who’s going to be smarter on crime?’ A look ahead at the 2020 DA’s race

In 2014, as he entered into a campaign for re-election, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro gave a speech at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School on the state of the criminal justice system in New Orleans.

The speech was a balancing act. Cannizzaro issued some tough-on-crime rhetoric. But he also touted progressive reforms, such as an increase in victim counselors, an expanded pre-trial diversion program under his watch, cracking down on prosecutorial misconduct, building community trust, and a new Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project in partnership with the Innocence Project New Orleans, that would scrutinize potential past cases of wrongful conviction.

He also had praise for City Councilman Jason Williams — a defense attorney — who gave the introduction to his speech.

“As I have said almost every day since his election, I would much rather see Councilman Williams on the City Council dais or in places such as this rather than sitting across from me in the courtroom,” Cannizzaro said.  “Councilman Williams represented his clients well, but the entire city of New Orleans is lucky to have Jason representing them today in the City Council.”

Much has changed since 2014.

Behind The Lens episode 21: ‘Commence operations’

This week on Behind The Lens, Governor John Bel Edwards has issued a state of emergency as high waters on the Mississippi River raise flood threats across the Lower Mississippi Valley. This week marks only the 13th such opening since the spillway was built in 1931 and the third in four years.

The Lens was there Wednesday morning as a few hundred people came out to watch the spillway opening.

Also, a top official of China’s Wanhua Chemical Group told St. James Parish planning commissioners Monday that the company’s proposed plant in Convent would provide hundreds of new permanent and temporary jobs, be managed safely and include a detailed emergency response plan and fully-trained response teams.

But members of the public commenting Monday evening wanted no part of it. Opponents came out in large numbers, part of a growing trend of pushback against new industrial development in the parish.

Finally, parents who have kids attending different schools may soon get some relief, as many New Orleans charters begin working together to coordinate their calendars. Education reporter Marta Jewson talks about her reporting on the project.

Behind The Lens is available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Play and Stitcher.

New Orleans charter leaders work to align school calendars

Parents who have been juggling students in different schools may soon see some relief as many New Orleans charters begin working together to coordinate their calendars.

Independent charter schools create their own calendars, and during holidays like Mardi Gras, schedules can vary. Some schools will release classes early on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Other schools — not all — have Friday off. Most schools have all of next week off. Then, a month later, is spring break. That can also differ from school to school.

Ashana Bigard knows the split calendars all too well. Her daughter attends Homer Plessy Community School while her son is at Bricolage Academy. Online school calendars show the schools have the same Mardi Gras vacation days but different spring break schedules. She likes the idea of a common calendar.

“My daughter will often be off two or three days before my son is,” Bigard said of school breaks. “For me, if I’m paying for childcare that adds days that I have to pay out of pocket.”

St. James residents slam Wanhua chemical plant plans in Convent

A top official of Wanhua Chemical Group assured St. James Parish planning commissioners Monday evening that the company’s planned chemical plant in Convent would provide hundreds of new permanent and temporary jobs, be managed safely and include a detailed emergency response plan and fully-trained response teams. He also vowed to hire local workers and purchase local products as much as possible.

But members of the public offering comment on Wanhua’s application to build the plant were not having it. Plant opponents came in large numbers, part of a growing trend of pushback against new industrial development in the parish.

“This is environmental injustice,” said Sharon Lavigne, president of the community group Rise St James. “Why do we have to come here and plead with you about these plants coming into our neighborhood? This should stop immediately.”

Student brings unloaded gun to Baby Ben, prompts brief lockdown, officials say

Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School’s Gentilly campus was placed on lockdown Tuesday after an 11-year-old student allegedly was discovered with an unloaded gun.

New Orleans Police Department spokesman Gary Scheets confirmed the incident.

“The juvenile was taken into custody by NOPD and delivered to the Orleans Parish Juvenile Detention Center,” Scheets said. “He is charged with illegal possession of a handgun by a juvenile and possession of a firearm in a firearm-free zone.”

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.