Former criminal court judge Keva Landrum and New Orleans City Council president Jason Williams will go to a runoff election in the hotly contested race for Orleans Parish District Attorney. Landrum, who led throughout Tuesday night, came in first with 35 percent of the vote.

Williams edged out another former judge, Arthur Hunter, with 29 percent to Hunters 28. Morris Reed got eight percent. 

Williams and Landrum have clashed throughout the campaign, with Wiliams — a defense attorney — portraying Landrum as a traditional prosecutor who will continue with what he characterizes as the failed policies of past administrations. Landrum, a former prosecutor who served as interim DA in 2007, has said she is the only candidate with the necessary experience to reform the office.

In a statement following the results, Landrum laid out her priorities if she becomes DA.

“I will prioritize bringing justice for violent crimes, especially those against women. I will prioritize creating transparency and support systems for victims and witnesses. I will prioritize expanding diversion programs and support systems. I will prioritize expanding diversion programs and reforming the bail system. Above all, I will prioritize the people of New Orleans.” 

Williams, in an interview with The Lens, praised the campaigns of Hunter and Reed, and placed his candidacy in the context of national politics — one directly at odds with President Donald Trump and Attorney general William Barr.

“I’m glad we’re still in the race to fight this twelve round battle,” Williams said. “[US Attorney General] Bill Barr came down the fist week of early voting to tell people we don’t want a progressive DA. ‘This is not good for the Trump administration. It’s not good for their idea of policing and prosecuting.’ And they’re right, I’m not good for their way of policing and prosecuting.”

In judicial races at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, former public defender Angel Harris knocked off Franz Zibilich in the race for Section L, becoming the first person to defeat an incumbent Criminal District Court judge since the early 1970s. 

With the exception of Harris and Nandi Campbell in the race for Section G, the other members of a slate of seven progressive judicial candidates — composed of mostly current and former public defenders who pledged to fight the policies of mass incarceration from the bench — were defeated. 

The DA’s race comes amid a national reckoning with racism, the criminal justice system, and a heightened awareness of the role that prosecutors have played in driving mass incarceration. In cities across the country, non-traditional DAs who have promised to undo punitive policies have been elected — including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kim Foxx in Chicago.

That mobilized groups in New Orleans to push candidates to adopt reform platforms.  The People’s DA Coalition — a coalition of over 30 criminal justice reform groups and advocates — released a platform calling on candidates to “end the era of mass incarceration in New Orleans” by declining to prosecute low-level “quality of life” offenses, committing to never use the habitual offender law to seek harsher sentences, and establishing a restorative justice program that avoids prosecution and instead facilitates meetings between offenders, victims, and the communities. 

Several other reform groups, including the ACLU of Louisiana, Step Up for Action, the Innocence Project New Orleans, Operation Restoration, all hosted forums with the candidates.

For many, the current Orleans Parish DA, Leon Cannizzaro, has come to embody the old-school, tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice. He has come under heat for issuing fake subpoenas to coerce witnesses into cooperating,  punitive sentences for drug offenses, and seeking to have victims of domestic violence and sexual assault jailed in order to ensure their testimony. 

And Cannizzaro has in some cases been outspoken against reform efforts. Last year, he slammed efforts to reduce the jail population as an ill-advised “social experiment” by sheltered academics. Even before qualifying — when it was assumed that he would seek re-election — groups were campaigning against him.  

Despite his absence, the race for DA has in many ways revolved around Cannizzaro’s policies — and who would most effectively undo them. 

The four candidates for DA all to varying degrees denounced Cannizzaro’s time in the office. 

Landrum, Hunter, and Williams — who were considered to be the most viable candidates — all said they would implement some form of conviction integrity unit to review past convictions, decline to prosecute marijuana possession in criminal district court, and look for alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenses.

But Williams has made the case that his opponents haven’t been on the right side of the reform debate, while he has consistently pushed for it.

But Williams has also been fighting a tax-fraud indictment in federal court. Attorney’s for the Department of Justice argue that he pressured his tax preparer to take illegal deductions over the course of several years in order to avoid paying over $200,000 in taxes. Williams has claimed he is being selectively and vindictively prosecuted, and that a conviction is as likely as him getting hit by a bus.

Landrum, for her part, has said she is the only one with the experience to reform the prosecutor’s office, pointing to her time as interim DA following the resignation of Eddie Jordan in 2007. But Landrum’s time as DA has also been the subject of criticism and claims that she did not do enough to uncover wrongful convictions and ramped up prosecutions of repeat  marijuana possessions as a felony charges.

Judicial races

In races for judgeships at the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, as well, proposed reforms aimed at ending mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal legal system got a lot of attention throughout the campaign, though most of the candidates most closely aligned with that agenda failed to win a seat or advance to the runoff on Tuesday.

A political action committee headed by Norris Henderson, the formerly incarcerated executive director of the orgainization Voice of the Experienced — endorsed a slate of progressive candidates and many current and former public defenders — including New Orleans Chief Public Defender, Derwyn Bunton — that have been critical of the money bail system and vowed to curtail the court’s reliance on incarceration and pre-trial detention. 

But some of their opponents have warned that those candidates will be too lenient on violent crime, and that victims may end up not getting represented in the system. And another political action committee, Watchdog PAC, has taken aim at the “flip the bench” candidates, and Henderson himself. 

For the most part — aside from Harris and Campbell — those candidates fell short. Orleans Parish Chief Public defender Derwyn Bunton was defeated by longtime prosecutor Rhonda Goode-Douglass.   And in the race for magistrate judge, Steve Singer  — who vowed to end the use of money bail — was defeated by Juana Lombard.

Angel Harris, however, said in an interview that her victory represented a shift in what people in New Orleans  want out of the criminal justice system.

“What my win symbolizes is that people are tired of dealing with things the way that they currently are,” she said. “People are tired of the status quo. And they decided to stand up against that tonight.”

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...