Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The candidates in the running for Orleans Parish District Attorney have made it clear that they don’t want to be associated in any way with the policies of the current DA, Leon Cannizzaro. But at recent forums, questions have come up about whether or not any of them have been complicit in one of Cannizzaro’s most controversial prosecutorial tactics: the use of material witness warrants to jail victims — particularly in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault — because they have allegedly refused to cooperate with prosecutors. 

The practice gained attention in 2017 when Court Watch NOLA — a watchdog group that observes court proceedings — revealed that the DA’s office had at least six victims of crimes jailed the previous year, including a rape victim who had been jailed for eight days. 

The use of material witness warrants against crime victims was widely condemned by advocates and lawmakers as “barbaric” and “abhorrent.” Cannizzaro has defended it as a rare but sometimes necessary measure to ensure public safety. 

Last year, the New Orleans City Council passed a resolution condeming the practice, and the state legislature passed a law limiting the jailing of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence to instances where judges deem it “absolutely necessary” and “after all other remedies have been exhausted in order to prevent further victimization and trauma to the victims.”

But in order to secure a material witness warrant, the DA must get a judge to sign off on it. And at one time or another, all of the candidates for DA in New Orleans have presided as judges at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

Arthur Hunter and Keva Landrum recently retired from the Criminal District Court bench. Hunter served the longest of any candidate, beginning back in 1997. Landrum was elected in 2008, following a brief stint as interim DA. Morris Reed served four years on the bench between 1992 and 1996, when he resigned to challenge — for the third time — then-DA Harry Connick in his reelection bid. New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams had the shortest tenure on the bench of any candidate, serving for several months in 2003 as a judge pro tempore after being appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court after the death of Judge Patrick Quinlan

At recent forums, all participating candidates have denied signing off on material witness warrants to jail victims. But for at least one candidate — former Judge Arthur Hunter — that’s not true. 

When asked at a candidate forum on Sept. 23 whether or not he had ever signed a material witness warrant to have a victim jailed, Hunter responded, “I don’t believe I have.” The next week, at a another forum, he conceded that he “may have signed a material witness warrant, and not for, as far as I know, victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence.”

He claimed that if a DA had brought a request for a material witness warrant in front of him, he would have had a hearing on it and provided the witness with an attorney — which is not required for material witness warrants — even in the witnesses’ absence. He pointed out that is how it works in Texas

Hunter even suggested that he hoped DAs would have asked him to sign off on material witness warrants, because he “strongly suspect that if they had done it, it wouldn’t have been to their liking.”

The Lens, however, identified two cases in which Hunter signed off on material witness warrants — in 2015 and 2016, and one of them indeed sought the arrest of the victim of an alleged domestic violence incident. There is no record of either the witnesses being put in jail in those cases, however, according to a spokesman for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. 

There is also no record in the court minutes that hearings were held on those motions, nor that the witnesses were given a lawyer, as Hunter claimed he would have done. 

And despite his claims in the forums that he would have likely denied those motions had they come before him, in a statement to The Lens after the warrants were brought to his attention, Hunter said he had no choice but to issue warrants if they were brought before him in a motion, due to state law, which says a judge “shall issue” a material witness warrant if a prosecutor makes a case that an essential witness can’t be secured for testimony through other means, like a court subpoena. 

“In two cases, I signed material witness warrants as was required by Louisiana Revised Statutes 15:257 (Code of Criminal Procedure),” Hunter said. “The language of the statute is clear and unequivocal that a judge shall issue the warrant upon motion, leaving a judge no discretion in the matter. Fortunately, the legislature amended this statute in 2019 (Act 410 of 2019; Louisiana Revised Statutes 15:257.1) to provide an exception for material witness warrants for victims of sex offenses and intimate partner violence.”

But one lawyer — with a lot of experience in Criminal District Court — disputed the claim that judges have had “no discretion” under state law when signing off on material witness warrants. 

“Part of a judge’s role is to protect against abusive practices, and that is particularly important when they are being asked to jail a witness or victim,” said Colin Reingold, the litigation director and senior counsel at the Orleans Public Defenders, in an email. “The statute says that a district attorney must show that the witness is essential and that getting the witness to court is impractical.”

Reingold said that at the very least, a judge can question the validity of the evidence prosecutors use to secure the warrant, and make a determination whether or not it is actually necessary. (Reingold is a recent financial supporter of one of Hunter’s rivals. He contributed $100 to the Williams campaign in September, according to state campaign finance records.)

“A judge doesn’t have to accept a district attorney’s word on these two requirements without asking questions,” he said. “Is the witness unwilling to come to court, or just uninterested in cooperating? Why do you need them and not someone else? Is jail really the only way to get them here?”

Hunter said that if he becomes DA he won’t seek material witness warrants for victims in “any domestic violence or related case” and that his office “will work with experienced professionals and qualified organizations, like the Family Justice Center, to provide support and appropriate services to these survivors to empower the survivor to determine the outcome of their case.”

Other candidates deny jailing victims

Jason Williams said at forums that he had never signed material witness warrants for victims when he briefly presided over Section B in Criminal District Court in 2003. And he told The Lens through a spokesperson that he had no recollection of signing off on any material witness warrants at all. 

The Lens reviewed minutes from 150 Section B cases that began during the three months he was appointed to the bench. There did not appear to be any references to material witness warrants in those records. (The review did not include cases that were pending in the section prior to his appointment.)

But Williams is unique among the candidates in that regard.

Reed and Landrum both deny having jailed victims, but acknowledged issuing material witness warrants in other instances.

Reed, at a forum, likewise denied ever signing off on warrants to have victims jailed, saying that when he was a judge, he “didn’t have that type of relationship with the district attorneys.”

“So he knew better than to come into my courtroom with foolishness like that,” Reed said. “So he took those kind of requests to the judges that he had a more affable relationship with…I would not have upheld such a measure and a methodology of getting victims into the office.”

But in an interview for The Lens, Reed said that issuing material witness warrants was standard practice when he was a judge in the 90s, and that he likely issued them. 

“It was nothing foreign to the DA’s office at the time,” Reed said. “I cannot recall any specific case, but if one came before me requested by the assistant DA I’m sure we probably would have issued it, had they given compelling reasons.”  

At one forum, in response to a question about whether or not she had ever jailed victims, Landrum said that she “rejected material witness bonds in my section for witnesses who were afraid to come forward and testify.” 

But at a later forum she  modified that answer, saying that while she never issued material witness warrants for victims, she had “issued material witness warrants for witnesses who have failed to come forward on cases and the DA did provide the necessary documentation showing that.”

Later she told The Lens that in the context of the first question, she only meant to refer to victims. 

“The law provides that if there is a witness who is evading the law for whatever that reason is after having been duly served and has necessary information to come forward on a case and for whatever reason is hiding that information, then that is an available option,” Landrum said at a forum. “So the district attorney has presented in my section of court warrants for those occasions.” 

But Reingold, with the public defenders office, said that material witness warrants — for victims and other witnesses — were “overused for many years, leading to people without lawyers or anyone to speak for them being jailed, sometimes for extended periods of time, based on flimsy assertions.”

“Jail should always be a last resort in the criminal legal system, yet somehow in Orleans Parish it was matter of course to jail witnesses and victims,” Reingold said.

Records obtained by The Lens identify 14 instances in which Landrum issued material witness warrants between 2010 and 2015. Just one of the cases involved domestic abuse or sexual assault — an alleged kidnapping and rape from 2012. It was not immediately clear if any of the warrants were for victims of crime.*

However, several of the warrants appear to be connected to the DA’s office’s former practice of using fake subpoenas.

Fake subpoenas and material witness warrants

At times during recent DA forums, the material witness warrant controversy has been wrongly conflated — by both questioners and candidates  — with the use of fake subpoenas to compel witness cooperation, another highly controversial tactic used by Cannizzaro’s office.

The use of fake subpoenas by the DA’s office was first reported by The Lens after a source — referred to The Lens by Court Watch NOLA — brought the practice to our attention.

The so-called “DA subpoenas” were being used to pressure witnesses to meet with prosecutors in private. The documents were never authorized by a judge, as state law requires. And they typically did not appear in case records.

The DA’s office used misleading documents styled to resemble subpoenas, in some form, for decades and under several district attorneys. But in recent years, under DA Leon Cannizzaro, the office added the word “subpoena” at the top in large type. The office also added an explicit warning that failing to comply could result in jail time. The office announced it would stop the practice in 2017, the day The Lens informed officials that it would be publishing a story on it.

“Fake subpoenas have been a problem,” one person asked at a forum of DA Candidates. “We got three people who have been judges here. Have you ever had witnesses or otherwise people brought in your court, jailed, by subpoenas that were issued by the DA and not the court?”

But judges generally had very little to do with fake subpoenas used by the DAs office — the fact that a judge had not signed off on them was the very thing that makes a subpoena fake. 

However, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2017 by the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps against the DAs office over their use, sometimes the fact that a witness failed to abide by a fake subpoena — despite having no legal obligation to do so —  was then used as part of the basis for seeking a material witness warrant.

Landrum was a prosecutor for a decade before winning a seat on the bench. Asked if she ever used fake subpoenas, she said she couldn’t recall. 

“I dealt with thousands of cases, so I don’t know if I sent a fake subpoena,” she said. “I’d have to go look through the cases. …I would not have knowingly sent any.”

But later, in at least four of the material witness warrants requested by prosecutors before her as a judge, The Lens found that prosecutors had first attempted to use a fake subpoena to compel the cooperation of a witness. (One of those warrants was recalled a day after it was issued.)

The motions seeking the warrants appear to contain indirect references to the use of fake subpoenas. In several of those motions, they argued they were necessary in part because a witness had missed an “appointment” with a prosecutor. In one case, the motion refers to a subpoena “issued by a district attorney investigator.” 

That case is briefly mentioned in the ACLU’s lawsuit. The witness spent five days in jail, according to the suit.

Landrum told The Lens that she would need to review the record to determine whether or not the warrants were in fact connected to fake subpoenas.

“I don’t know that a DA subpoena is in itself a fake subpoena,” she told The Lens, noting that they could have been referring to subpoena requested by prosecutors, but legally issued by the court.

“My reliance is based on what the district attorney’s office presented in the motion,” she said.

This story has been updated to include information about a recent campaign contribution from Colin Reingold to the Williams campaign. The Lens also added a sentence clarifying that it was not immediately clear whether any of the 14 material witness warrants signed by Landrum were for victims of crimes.

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...