At University Medical Center, victims of sexual assault and domestic violence are guided through care options by forensic nurses. Credit: SAFE

Victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault can get treated so differently in New Orleans it makes my head spin. How’s this for polar opposites: some crime victims are offered sensitive care and confidential counseling supervised by medical professionals. A few blocks farther up Tulane Avenue, others — mind you, we’re talking victims not perpetrators — have been thrown in jail and held on whopping bonds without a lawyer.

How can this be?

The ugly maltreatment of sex crime and domestic violence victims has occurred at the hands of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro if he thought you might not agree to cooperate as a witness against the defendant charged with the crime. A couple of years ago, he got caught using “fake subpoenas” to coerce such testimony — subpoenas issued by his office but not authorized, as required, by a judge.

It was a years-old practice that tore up the life of Renata Singleton among others. Singleton emerged as a kind of poster child for prosecutorial abuse.

According to a lawsuit filed on her behalf, after she called the cops to report that her angry boyfriend had grabbed her cell phone and broken it, Cannizzaro issued one of those fake subpoenas ordering her to testify. When she shied away, he threw her in jail for five days on a $100,000 bond and with no provision for legal counsel.

But if you thought discontinuing fake subpoenas had solved the problem, you would be wrong.

A media and legal firestorm erupted when, early in 2017, The Lens began extensive coverage of fake subpoenas, a practice first identified in a report by Court Watch NOLA, a nongovernment agency that monitors the courts and advocates for reform of the justice system. Later in the year, the American Civil Liberties Union and Civil Rights Corps filed an ongoing suit on behalf of eight plaintiffs, including Singleton, and Cannizzaro vowed to end his use of fake subpoenas.

But if you thought discontinuing fake subpoenas had solved the problem, you would be wrong. Cannizzaro may have suspended his practice of fabricating fake subpoenas to coerce testimony but he continues to use “material-witness warrants” against victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes. Ten victims were jailed in 2016 or 2017 on material-witness warrants, according to Court Watch NOLA. The District Attorney admits trying to make arrests in another 18 cases, but the police couldn’t find the victims.

The New Orleans City Council is taking action. Council members unanimously passed a resolution condemning the practice and have pledged to work with state lawmakers to prohibit it.

City Council Member Helena Moreno put it this way at the Feb. 7 meeting: “At the end of the day, jailing innocent victims just sends the message to these victims that the criminal justice system isn’t here to protect you. It’s maybe even here to cause you deeper harm.”

“When someone who has already been robbed of their sense of normalcy is then punished and jailed by the person who is supposed to protect them, that only further aggravates that trauma,” said Council Member Jason Williams, who has announced plans to run against Cannizzaro. Cannizzaro did not attend the meeting but has defended his coercive practices as necessary to the smooth administration of his office.

The polar opposite of the Cannizzaro approach to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence is a healing option.  It’s the one I learned about on a recent tour arranged by Court Watch volunteer coordinator Jesse Manley. As a Court Watch volunteer myself, I am in the process of getting an in-depth education about our criminal justice system so that I can play my small part in the struggle to reform it. The learning curve is turning out to be a steep one for me. We volunteers are from all walks of life. We sit in Criminal, Magistrate, and Civil courts with a long questionnaire to guide our report on what we see.

Drawing on our observations, Court Watch NOLA will provide its latest numbers on court performance in a report to be released this spring.

Court Watch NOLA’s mission is not solely victim advocacy, but rather wholesale reform of the justice system in an effort to make it more efficient, transparent, and fair. We get an up-close view of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The bad/ugly, including Cannizzaro’s heartless overreach, happens at Tulane and Broad, the Criminal Courts building right up the avenue from where we are now, at the University Medical Center. We are here to learn about the good end of the spectrum as we tour the medical center’s facility under the guidance of a SAFE — for Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner — nurse.

The SAFE program does everything it can to avoid further aggravating the trauma of sexual assault. For 17 years it has provided informed care in a safe environment. Specially trained forensic nurses provide 24/7 multi-disciplinary treatment for anyone 15 or older who comes to the door and wants that help. For patients 17 and older, the police do not have to be notified.

The first things we see on our tour look like refrigerators. In fact they contain warm blankets to wrap around patients as they enter one of the emergency rooms where their medical condition can be assessed. Some patients come on their own. Others arrive with friends or family. Some are brought by the police or emergency medical personnel – 460 patients last year. All are free to pick and choose what services they want. The patient is in control of everything including who is allowed to be in the room. He or she must give permission to be physically examined.

She gives practical tips, among them: ‘Never hug a victim. That’s tampering with evidence.’

The SAFE program collects evidence and links patients to care. The free and confidential services may include HIV/STD testing and prevention medications, pregnancy prevention options, referrals for follow-up services, laboratory tests, forensic photography, clothing and toiletries after a shower, and a safety plan.

If patients request an advocate to accompany them through the process, the medical center calls Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR, 1-855-435-STAR) or the New Orleans Family Justice Center (504-866-9554 hot line or 504-592-4005).

Our guide Heidi Martin, a forensic nurse, tells us that the nine sex-crime detectives with the New Orleans Police Department have been very good with patients. She explains the careful techniques for preserving evidence, the non-invasive beginnings of an exam, and how to take a narrative. She gives practical tips, among them: “Never hug a victim. That’s tampering with evidence.”

The job requires so much empathy and sensitivity that nurses cope with their own “secondary trauma,” and turnover among them is high, we learn. But our guide seems strong and confident in her work. She is committed to community outreach and talks to groups about what she does. As Jesse and I leave, my fellow court watcher, a Tulane University senior, asks if she can stay behind and discuss her own experience of sexual assault with a nurse. She said if she had known about this service, it would have been so helpful as she recovered from her trauma.

Two completely different responses to sexual assault victims: jail or a confidential, supportive medical space. Court Watch NOLA is drawing attention to both. What are we, concerned citizens, going to do about the discrepancy? We could put pressure on the District Attorney not to further traumatize people who have been assaulted. We could work with the state legislature to outlaw the jailing of victims. We could get the word out about real help for victims. The choices are clear.

Contact information for Court Watch NOLA:


Orissa Arend is a Court Watch NOLA volunteer, a mediator and a psychotherapist. She is author of the book “Showdown in Desire, the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.”

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.