Judge Frank Shea.

By 1989, seven years before Judge Frank Shea’s retirement and nine years before his death, a few other judges in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court were already vying for who would be his rightful heir. A friendly competition had emerged to see who could hold the most jury trials in a single year.  

“While prosecutors and defense attorneys slug it out in court,” an article in The Times-Picayune explained, “the judges are waging a friendly battle of their own: the Annual Jury Trial Sweepstakes.”

Shea’s speed on the bench was the stuff of legends. In 1975 he purportedly held 168 jury trials, and the following year the Louisiana state legislature passed a resolution commending him for “silencing long winded, redundant attorneys.” In 1984, Shea held six felony trials in a single day. 

But in 1989, the sweepstakes winner was Judge Leon Cannizzaro, who presided over 101 jury trials, outpacing Judge Dennis Waldron by 10.  

(Cannizzaro is currently the New Orleans District Attorney. Waldron recently presided, coincidentally, over Section G of the Criminal Court as an ad hoc judge while Byron Williams was on paid suspension following sexual misconduct allegations. Williams resigned in February.)

“Naturally,” the article read, “the judges say, they don’t allow the contest to detract from the fair administration of justice.”

Shea, that year, was not in the running, but applauded the competition that he inspired and considered it a “tribute to all the judges’ dedication to their jobs.”  

Cannizzaro and Waldron, despite their considerable ambition, at the time both agreed that breaking Shea’s 1975 record was “nearly impossible,” though Waldron said that nothing would give him greater pleasure.

A 1989 Times-Picayune article on the Annual Jury Trial Sweepstakes. Pictured: Then-Judge Leon Cannizzaro, Judge Dennis Waldron and Judge Frank Shea.

Shea was modest about it. “I had a lot of hot years in a row,” he said. “Every judge has his hot years.”

No one, it seems, ever attempted to break his record of 6 felony jury trials in a single day.

But a few years later, in 1991, Judge Cannizzaro had a particularly hot year, and he did in fact break Shea’s record. He held 169 jury trials by November. 

“There’s no judge in the whole country that has tried this many cases in one year,” Cannizzaro said, according to a news item at the time. He and his staff sipped champagne to celebrate. 

But others didn’t share Cannizzaro’s enthusiasm for the competition. The cause of judicial efficiency was one that was apparently one that was celebrated and lauded only by prosecutors and judges. 

“There will be a plaque that will have the judge’s name and the DA’s name,” Joe Meyer, a public defender who tried 150 cases that year, said to the newspaper. “But if you lift the Velcro on the back, they’ll have my initials. That’s how much thanks I get.”

Dennis Waldron declined to comment for this story, and a spokesperson for Leon Cannizzaro did not respond to multiple emails from The Lens. 

‘That wouldn’t work today

On the second floor of the New Orleans Criminal District Court there is a room where all the criminal court judges in New Orleans meet for what are known as en banc meetings, where they discuss the functions of the court.  

Hanging on the wall of that meeting room is a portrait of Judge Frank Shea. 

Since Shea’s time on the bench, the judges who gather in that room look considerably different than when he was there. When Shea was first elected, in 1963, Criminal District Court had an all-white, all-male bench. Today, the judiciary is majority black, and half the judges are women. 

The culture has changed in the building as well. You won’t find anyone smoking in the courtrooms, and the ashtrays have been removed from the jurors chairs. 

But the portrait is not the only way Shea’s legacy persists at Tulane and Broad.

A number of the major players in the New Orleans criminal justice system are from Shea’s era, and a debate over the benefits and pitfalls of running a courtroom as “efficiently” as possible continues — along with a broader concern over what that debate says about the way the criminal justice system operates. 

A portrait of Shea hangs in a second-floor meeting room at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Photo provided by Orleans Parish Criminal District Court)

In the most recent election for Section G, in 2014, the two candidates, Paul Sens and Byron Williams, both made it a point to say that if they were elected they would clear up the backlogged docket left by their predecessor. Williams, who won the election, in particular made it a goal to be one of the most efficient judges in the Criminal District Court. 

Cannizzaro, in particular, is someone people point to as having Shea-like qualities, and as both a Judge and a DA he has regularly encouraged efficiency in proceedings. (He has also received criticism, however, for dragging out cases when it was convenient for him.)

“The guy who is the DA now, was a judge for many many years, and he’d appoint you to a case and expect you to try the case — he did it to me one time — the day he appointed me,” said Judge Franz Zibilich, a former defense attorney and the current judge in Section L of the Criminal District Court, speaking of Cannizzaro. “He’d say, ‘You don’t need to worry, just read the police report, I’ve subpoenaed your witnesses.’ That wouldn’t work today. Today, in the best practices world, it just wouldn’t work.” 

While the specific mechanisms for achieving speedy trial outcomes may no longer be acceptable, the desire to push cases through the system has remained. As recently as 2011, Cannizzaro challenged the Criminal District Court judges to hold 600 jury trials, double the number they had held in 2010. 

“The purpose … is to move the cases through the criminal justice system, through the dockets as quickly as we can,” Cannizzaro told the Gambit at the time. “Age and the staleness of the cases usually work against the state. And in many cases, the victims are denied justice, and are denied their day in court.”

Cannizzaro pointed specifically to Shea and other judges from that era as proof that such a feat was possible. 

But he declined to mention the more controversial aspects of Shea’s efficiency, such as his routine silencing of lawyers, rushing of jury selection, or the murder trials that lasted a single day. Nor did he address the way those things could deny a defendant the due process and justice which they are entitled. 

New Orleans chief public defender, Derwyn Bunton, however, offered a protest. 

“We can’t represent people competently, safely, when we’re dealing with these kinds of numbers coupled with the resources we’re allotted,” Bunton told Gambit. “There has got to be more discretion at the prosecuting end so that we can keep up and the city can remain safe.”

“I don’t think you measure safety by how many cases come through the system,” he said. “You measure safety by how many times you can keep folks out of the system, how many times you can get people back and working and producing.”

Not long after Cannizzaro made his appeal, some courthouse observers suggested that he was intentionally inflating the trial numbers by waiting until a jury was called to offer plea deals to defendants, and then counting it as a trial — a maneuver known as a “pick-and-plea.” The practice was denounced by Tulane law professor Dane Ciolino.  “Those people have been sent over there to help administer justice, not help inflate a judge’s stats or to train lawyers,” he said. Cannizzaro denied the accusation at the time.

‘When efficiency becomes the obstacle of constitutional rights’

It wasn’t  just other judges and prosecutors who used efficiency as a standard of a well-functioning justice system in New Orleans. When the watchdog group Court Watch NOLA first began observing and collecting data on the New Orleans Criminal District Court, they too wanted to encourage the judges to move cases as quickly as possible. 

“Court Watch NOLA is unique among court‐watching groups nation‐wide, as it is the only organization of its kind  dedicated not to victims’ rights or defendants’ rights, but to judicial efficiency,” the group’s 2009 report read.

But in recent years, their mission has shifted. Simone Levine, the executive director of the organization since 2015, said it was her hopes that the organization would become more people focused.

“The tricky thing when it came to trying to collect data,” she said “was to try and collect data that the normal human being in New Orleans would care about. What would they care about? They sure as heck don’t care about how often a judge is able to clear their docket and get their cases done. The issues that come up in the news are about justice, and injustice, and how victims are treated, and how defendants are treated, and how poor people are treated in the system.”

In the group’s newest report put out this month, Court Watch cautioned against equating speed with efficiency, and using speed as the overriding factor by which a court system is evaluated. The group called the concept “antiquated.” 

“Speed to trial was a traditional efficiency marker used by court think tanks in the 1980s and 1990s, but while easier to measure, it is antiquated to use speed alone as the best practice standard by which to measure either the efficiency or efficacy of a criminal court,” the report said. “A criminal court system must prioritize how accountability and responsibility is claimed after a person is wronged and hurt and what can be done to ensure such mistreatment and injury does not recur. The key to this process is the proper treatment of and approach toward people” 

By prioritizing speed, they argued, courts can end up subverting the constitutional rights of defendants, and in turn wasting additional resources. 

“We see that the priority is placed on docket clearance quite consistently all the time. It certainly is at the deprivation of victim rights as well as defendants’ constitutional rights.”

—Simone Levine, Court Watch NOLA

“The exercise of constitutional rights can be a messy, time-consuming process and an obstacle to short-term concepts of efficiency,” they wrote. “When efficiency becomes the obstacle of constitutional rights, mistakes occur, and mistakes waste resources in addition to destroying lives.” 

But Levine told The Lens that Court Watch is still seeing instances in which the desire for procedural efficiency is outweighing concerns for the people involved in the system. 

“Oh my goodness, we see it all the time,” she said. “Oh absolutely we see it all the time. No, we see that the priority is placed on docket clearance quite consistently all the time. It certainly is at the deprivation of victim rights as well as defendants’ constitutional rights.”

Paul Killebrew, who worked at the Innocence Project New Orleans from 2008 to 2012, and who worked on Erin Hunter’s murder case — a 1988 murder trial in Shea’s court that lasted a single morning — said that one way Shea’s legacy lived on in an individual case was that a limited record during a trial could also continue to undermine the pursuit of justice for a defendant in post-conviction proceedings. 

“A huge part of post-conviction is working from a good trial record,” Killebrew said. “What a good trial record would consist of is full testimony by witnesses, where you get really good development of facts. You have objections that are made by defense counsel. There is some clarity on what evidence the jury was convicting on. And more meat to work with in terms of the overall record of the case.” 

But in Shea’s courtroom those things often didn’t happen.

“So with Judge Shea pressuring the entire courtroom to just keep everything moving,” he said, “And the defense lawyer isn’t sticking up for their client and making sure they are taking all the time that they need, you get this problem in post-conviction of having nothing to work with, and it makes it that much harder to make out legal claims.”

But Killebrew said that the prevailing atmosphere of Shea’s courtroom — the need to keep things moving — still existed over a decade after Shea’s retirement, and permeated the system as a whole. 

“When I was practicing criminal law down there, there was a sense of emergency in all the criminal courts because everyone felt like the dockets were overwhelming,” he said. “There were so many cases to process.  Every entity that was involved in it just felt like they had way too much on their plates — prosecutors had too many cases, judges had too many cases, defenders had too many cases. And like, there’s a real temptation for judges and prosecutors especially, in dynamics like that to just try to make it as efficient as they can. And I think that lives on. It was definitely in the air when I was in New Orleans.”

As a defense attorney in particular, he said, doing a good job could seem like an affront to the system as a whole. 

“And, what’s infuriating about that is that it creates this dynamic where if you’re a good defense lawyer, and you’re standing up for your client, you are perceived as a problem. You’re gumming up the works, you’re making it slow, you’re taking too long, there are too many cases to process, and if everybody acted like you this whole system would grind to a halt. Well, I think the legacy of mass incarceration is yeah, maybe it should grind to a halt.”

‘By honestly and objectively examining our past in order to understand our present’

As New Orleans attempts to take steps to undo mass incarceration, Judge Shea’s time on the bench offers an illustration of some of the attitudes, mechanisms, and relationships that animated the New Orleans Criminal District court during the decades and helped to drive it in the first place. The murder trials lasting a matter of hours. The defense attorneys doing the bare minimum, and sometimes not even that. The impatience and sometimes cruelty expressed towards both lawyers and defendants. And the broad acquiescence to the fact that this was how justice operated in Section G.

For defendants in front of Shea, the culture of expediency he engendered in his courtroom cut their stories short two-fold. Abbreviated proceedings led to abbreviated lives, and the seemingly diminished value of a full reckoning with their guilt or innocence matched the diminished value the broader society had placed on their lives as a whole.

For men like Isaac Knapper, George Toca, and Erin Hunter, the legacy of Shea’s expeditiousness during their trial translated into the many years they spent in prison waiting to get out. In Hunter’s case, he never did. 

“Judge Shea’s courtroom was a slaughterhouse for young, poor black males.”

—Erin Hunter

Hunter died in prison last year. In a letter to The Lens from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, not long before his death, he called Shea’s courtroom a “slaughterhouse for young, poor black males.” 

But it may be impossible to extract Shea’s legacy from a broader legacy of racism and punitiveness that has defined the criminal justice system both locally and nationally.

Amid the current reckoning over racism in policing and the courts, it seems possible that actors in the criminal justice system — and judges in particular — might be willing to take a self-critical look at the role they play in perpetuating those legacies. 

In June, as people took to the streets over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, the Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Bernette Johnson, a black woman, wrote a letter to all the judges in the state. She encouraged introspection.

“As judges, lawyers, legislators, and law enforcement officials, we have real power to change the African American community’s lived experience of the legal system,” Johnson wrote. “But we can only accomplish it by honestly and objectively examining our past in order to understand our present, and then critically examining our present in order to create a better future. Those examinations will reveal an ugly truth: Louisiana was built on principles of racism which have been written into our laws for centuries – often through ‘race neutral’ language. Throughout history, we have only seen changes in the form of short-term policy decisions made in response to tense moments of conflict, rather than thoughtfully crafted long-term plans to dismantle systemic discrimination.” 

“If we continue to deny the problem,” she wrote, “we can never expect to reach a solution.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...