New Orleans City Council president Jason Williams after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Three candidates running for Orleans Parish District Attorney — Keva Landrum, Jason Williams, and Arthur Hunter —  took part in an virtual forum on Wednesday evening hosted by Step Up for Action — an affiliate of Step Up Louisiana, an organization fighting to end structural racism in the state. Morris Reed, a fourth candidate for the office, did not attend.

At the forum the candidates fielded questions ranging from how they would approach cases of marijuana possession to the use of the habitual offender law. 

Landrum and Hunter are both recently retired criminal court judges. Williams —  who also briefly served as a judge at the court in 2003 when he was one of two judges appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to fill a vacancy following the death of Patrick Quinlan — is a long-time defense attorney and current president of the New Orleans City Council. This is his second run for DA, having unsuccessfully sought the position in the 2008 election.

Landrum also served as interim DA following the resignation of Eddie Jordan in 2007 and before the 2008 election of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Cannizzaro has decided not to seek a third term in office and will retire when his current term ends next year. 

A primary will be held on Nov. 3, with a runoff, should one be necessary, scheduled for Dec. 5. 

All three attempted to position themselves as reformers, saying they would depart from what they framed as a “tough on crime” approach under Cannizzaro — focusing on alternatives to incarceration, reviewing old convictions, and advocating for services for people outside of the criminal justice system. 

Williams repeatedly touted the work he’s done on the council — including as chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee — from working to reduce penalties for marijuana possession, to securing more money for early childhood education, to the use of public-facing dashboards that provide data about the criminal justice system. 

Landrum cited the relationships she built as chief judge of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court with criminal justice stakeholders to push forward reform efforts. 

Hunter pointed to his experience presiding over mental health court, and said his work as a police officer in the 80s would allow him to build a relationship with the New Orleans Police Department and set up a special crimes division in the DAs office that would target violent criminals.

Williams and Hunter both said they would decline to prosecute all low-level possession of marijuana charges, and Landrum said that she would either send those cases to New Orleans Municipal Court — a policy that Cannizzaro pushed early in his first term — or decline to prosecute. 

“I personally don’t believe it should be illegal,” Williams said. “You got people right now in Angola, you got people right now serving long sentences for something someone else is starting a business with in Colorado or California.” 

Hunter echoed that sentiment. 

“I believe that the way Leon Cannizzaro has handled possession of marijuana is one of the only policies I would keep the same from Leon Cannizzarro,” said Landrum. 

Landrum said that “to the extent that we should or could,” she would divert most cases of marijuana distribution or possession with an attempt to distribute out of the criminal justice system and not seek incarceration.

All of the candidates have expressed serious reservations about the state’s habitual offender law that allows prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for defendants based on their prior convictions. 

Williams said as DA he would never use the law. Landrum said she would only use it “in the most exceptional circumstances.” Hunter has previously said he would reserve the law for the most egregious and serious crimes. 

All the candidates also said they would set up some form of conviction integrity unit to review convictions from prior DA administrations, which have been plagued by accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and eventual exonerations. (Cannizzaro formed a conviction integrity unit several years ago, though the initiative was short-lived.)

A report released this week by the National Registry of Exonerations found that New Orleans has the highest per capita exoneration rate of any county in the country. It also found that in 78 percent of those exonerations, evidence that could have helped prove someone’s innocence was concealed from defense attorneys. In the vast majority of those cases, prosecutors committed some form of misconduct. 

At one point, Williams questioned Landrum’s commitment to reviewing bad convictions, pointing to the case of Robert Jones, who was convicted in 1996 for kindap and rape that occured in 1992. Jones’ conviction was overturned in 2014. In 2015, as Cannizzaro’s office was contemplating whether to retry Jones, prosecutors turned over a nearly 20-year-old memo that undercut the state’s key arguments against Jones. 

Williams claimed that Landrum, as interim DA, would have been in possession of that memo. During her time in the post, according to a 2016 report by The Times-Picayune, Landrum’s prosecutors fought Jones’ earlier attempts to have his conviction overturned. 

“Her office, when she was DA, had a memo that helped show his innocence, but she kept him in jail even longer,” Williams said. “So we have to be really honest about what we believe and what we’re going to do.” 

After she became a judge, Landrum said that she was not involved in Robert Jones’ appeals during her time as DA and that she was focused on “keeping the office afloat.”

Williams is facing a controversy of his own in the run-up to the election. In June, he — along with a partner in his private law firm — was indicted for federal tax fraud. Williams has claimed he is a victim of overzealous prosecutors and has suggested that Cannizzaro was involved in directing the federal government toward an investigation into his tax filings. Cannizzaro has said that Williams has only himself to blame for his legal problems, at one point calling him “delusional.” Williams has pleaded not guilty and is asking a federal judge to toss the case. The indictment did not come up during Wednesday’s forum.  

Each of the candidates also said they would review cases in which defendants were found guilty by a non-unanimous jury. Louisiana was a longtime outlier — along with Oregon — allowing verdicts to stand with a non-unanimous vote. But in 2018, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment requiring unanimous juries in future cases.  And earlier this year the United States Supreme Court found that non-unanimous jury verdicts were unconstitutional

Under the Supreme Court ruling, it appears that non-unanimous jury cases that are still on direct appeal will get a new trial, but it is unclear what will come of cases that have already gone through the full appeals process. 

But the DA candidates on Wednesday said they would review non-unanimous jury cases, regardless of when they were prosecuted.

“The Supreme Court may not address retroactivity, but as DA, I will,” Williams said. 

“I’m going to review those non-unanimous decisions,” said Hunter, “and after a review, if the evidence and  law is not there to retry the person to obtain a unanimous verdict, that case will be dismissed. It’s that simple.” 

A video of the forum is available on Step Up’s facebook page. Another forum, hosted by the People’s DA Coalition, is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 23.

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...