District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro won’t be running for reelection, his office announced in a press release Friday afternoon. He will retire at the end of his current term. 

Cannizzaro, 67, has served two terms in the position. His decision to retire, announced just 90 minutes before the end of the qualifying period for the Nov. 3 election, marks the end to a decades-long career in the New Orleans criminal justice system.

“I will finish my term knowing I gave my all to this city in more than four decades as an assistant district attorney, a deputy public defender, a judge on two different courts, and as District Attorney. It has been my great honor and privilege to be entrusted with serving this community for so long,” Cannizzaro was quoted as saying in the announcement. “Finally, I hope and pray that God will continue to bless the people of New Orleans.”

His decision puts the race between three former Criminal District Court judges — Arthur Hunter, Keva Landrum, and Morris Reed — and New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams, and form. Hunter and Landrum stepped down this year. Reed has served as a judge, as well as a federal prosecutor, and served as president of the New Orleans NAACP.

Prior to his announcement on Friday, the race was anticipated to become a referendum on Cannizzaro’s controversial career, as well as on recent criminal justice reform efforts — which he has at times been critical of.

“It is my hope that the citizens of New Orleans will take care choosing my successor,” the announcement read. “The job of District Attorney in this city may often be a thankless one, but that does not diminish its importance.”

In recent years, Cannizzaro has faced criticism over his aggressive and sometimes ethically questionable tactics, such as his prosecutors’ use of fake subpoenas, which The Lens first reported on in 2017. Misleading documents called “DA subpoenas” had  been in use for decades. But unlike the documents used during Cannizzaro’s tenure, previous versions, such as those used in the late 1990s, did not explicitly threaten the recipient with arrest. Nor did they have the word “SUBPOENA” printed across the top in large type. The day that The Lens first uncovered the use of fake subpoenas in 2017, Cannizzaro announced that his prosecutors would stop using them. 

With Cannizzaro bowing out, the campaign will take a different shape, though his presence will still likely be felt. All three candidates have positioned themselves on the progressive end of Cannizzaro, and at times been vocal in their criticisms of the DA.

At a forum on criminal justice last year, Landrum, a former prosecutor who was the Chief Judge at the Criminal District Court, criticized Cannizzaro for “not being a willing participant” in attempts by the city to lower the jail population through the use of pretrial services. 

Williams, a defense attorney, has accused Cannizzaro of orchestrating a federal indictment that he is currently facing for tax fraud, a charge that Cannizzaro called “delusional.”

But prior to that, Williams blasted Cannizzaro from his position on the City Council for the use of fake subpoenas and jailing or seeking to jail crime victims, including victims of domestic and sexual violence. (The Lens reported on one case where prosecutors sought one of these so-called “material witness warrants” for a domestic violence victim after she did not comply with a fake subpoena.) 

Following Cannizzaro’s announcement, Williams responded with a press release touting  his past criticisms of the DA.

“For eight years, while others sat silent, I led the fight on the New Orleans City Council to expose the oppressive, biased and illegal tactics of DA Cannizzaro’s Office,” Williams said in a press release. “From exposing the fake subpoenas and jailing of rape victims to reducing a bloated prosecutorial budget, and reinvesting those dollars in citizen needs like Early Childhood education, I am proud of the work I did with advocates and community members to shine a light on a broken criminal justice system where DA Cannizzaro was one of the lead actors.”

He said Cannizzaro had a “draconian and abusive theory of justice.”

In 2013, Hutner filed a complaint to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel against the spokesperson for Cannizzaro’s office, Chris Bowman. Bowman told a reporter that Hunter had “thwarted” their efforts to eliminate corruption following a not guilty verdict — which Bowman referred to as a “press release” after Hunter provided his written ruling to local media — in a bench trial by Hunter. A disciplinary panel did not recommend sanctions for Bowman, but said it did not condone his “hasty remark.”

In a statement on Friday, Hunter said that the “old status quo” has “sadly proven ineffective and led to a dysfunctional criminal justice system untrusted by the citizens.”

“I’m looking forward to running on my platform for real change now,” he said, “and my record as a fair judge committed to justice for victims, and opportunities for a better life for people caught up in the criminal justice system.”

A divisive career

Cannizzaro’s career as New Orleans DA, which began in 2008, spanned an era in which the concept of American mass incarceration entered into the national consciousness, and some began pointing to tough-on-crime prosecutors as the cause of the country’s large prison population. 

Across the country, district attorney’s races have become a focus of criminal justice reform advocates, with “progressive prosecutors” winning elections in major cities like Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago.

But Cannizzaro had been a player in the New Orleans criminal justice system for decades before becoming DA. He worked as a prosecutor under DA Harry Connick, as well as a public defender, before becoming a judge in 1986.

And he has long been a divisive figure. As a judge, he was known for speeding through his docket, setting a record in 1991 by holding over 160 jury trials in a single year. That same year, to the frustration of some of his fellow judges, he independently acquired drug testing equipment and set up a make-shift lab in an out-of-use attic courtroom to test defendants that were before him in court. He hired a former court clerk to administer the tests, and charged defendants $20 apiece.

By the time he decided to run for district attorney in 2008, following a stint as an appellate judge, some had developed strong opinions about him. (Williams also ran in that race, but placed third in the primary, failing to make the run-off.) 

At a debate during the campaign, Cannizzaro’s opponent, defense attorney Ralph Capitelli,  was asked whether or not Cannizzaro was a “good man.” After hesitating, Capitelli responded: “No.” Following the election, Capitelli changed his tone and praised Cannizzaro as a “hard worker.”

Cannizzaro pledged to stomp out violent crime, but also to use diversion programs to keep drug-related minor offenses out of the criminal justice system. 

“I know we aren’t going to save everybody, but we are going to give them an opportunity,” he said during his campaign.

He easily defeated Capitelli, thanks in part to strong support from Black voters in the city, according to an analysis of the election reported by The Times-Picayune

Among the first major issues that Cannizzaro had to deal with upon  was a $14 million judgment that his office was ordered to pay to John Thompson following his overturned Connick-era murder conviction for which he speant 18 years behind bars, 14 of them in death row. Cannizzaro appealed the judgement to the United States Supreme Court, which threw it out. 

Throughout his career, Cannizzaro was criticized for his unwillingness to scrutinize other potential wrongful convictions — or for trying to pursue prosecutions for people whose convictions were overturned. 

In 2014, his office briefly teamed up with the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) to look back at correcting wrongful convictions. But it didn’t last long. When the program disbanded a little more than a year after it began, Cannizzaro cited budget cuts — but the relationship between the two offices appeared frayed.

“We tried some things. It didn’t work out. I wish it had,” Emily Maw, who was the Director of IPNO, said at the time. “Maybe it wasn’t the right time. Maybe the District Attorney’s Office doesn’t fully understand how these cases go wrong. Maybe it’s simply not for him. It’s disappointing.”

More recently, Cannizzaro has been at odds with advocates and city officials attempts to lower the jail population and cut back on pretrial detention, calling it an ill-conceived “social experiment,” and has been critical of judges for setting bonds that he felt were too low. 

Earlier this year, when the coronavirus pandemic reached New Orleans and public defenders pushed to get their clients released from jail, where the virus can be easily transmitted, prosecutors in Cannizzaro’s office argued that defendants shouldn’t be let out because they could pose a threat to the community by spreading the disease.

In the announcement on Friday, Cannizzaro said he looks forward to spending more time with his nine grandchildren. 

“It has been my great honor and privilege to be entrusted with serving this community for so long,” he said. “Finally, I hope and pray that God will continue to bless the people of New Orleans.”

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...