Jason Williams, pictured on July 22, 2020, takes questions from reporters after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

City Council President and long-time defense attorney Jason Williams will be the next Orleans Parish District Attorney. On Saturday night, he defeated former Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum in a bitter and high profile campaign that drew attention from criminal justice reform advocates across the country. 

Williams ran as a progressive vowing to remake a criminal justice system that he called both racist and sexist, and to end the “win at all costs” culture that he said has shaped the prosecutor’s office for the last several administrations. He won despite fighting an 11-count federal indictment for tax fraud, which he said was a politically motivated attack to prevent his election, and which will likely go to trial early next year after he takes office.

Landrum and Williams advanced to the runoff election last month, defeating former Criminal District Court Judges Arthur Hunter and Morris Reed. Landrum came in first with 35 percent of the vote, and Williams narrowly edged out Hunter with 29 percent to Hunter’s 28. 

On Saturday, Williams won 58 percent of the vote to Landrum’s 42. He will be the first district attorney without any experience as a prosecutor in decades. 

The position of DA — widely seen as the most powerful single official in a local criminal justice system —  has become the focus of reform advocates throughout the country looking to end mass incarceration and implement less punitive approaches to criminal justice. Places like Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis have elected DAs that have committed to end low-level drug prosecutions, reform the money bail system, and hold police accountable.

Meanwhile, to reformers and advocates in New Orleans, the current DA, Leon Cannizzaro, who took office in 2008, has come to represent the worst of the old-school tough-on-crime policies that led to New Orleans once being the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the country. A number of his tactics —  such as the use of fake subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify and the use of material witness warrants seeking to have witnesses and crime victims jailed — drew national media attention, lawsuits from civil rights groups, and condemnation from local officials. 

That negative attention apparently filtered into the public consciousness as well. Cannizzaro saw his approval rating drop from 55 percent in 2016 to 42 percent in 2018, according to quality of life surveys conducted by the University of New Orleans. 

Cannizzaro announced just hours prior to the close of qualifying for the race that he would not seek a third term. But still, with a new national awareness around the role of the DA, and concerns over the Cannizzaro administration locally, the election on Saturday had the full attention of the criminal legal community in New Orleans. 

An organization of groups called the People’s DA Coalition pushed the candidates to put an end to the policies of mass incarceration by vowing to stop using the multiple offender bill, declining to prosecute “quality of life crimes,” and never charging juveniles as adults. A number of others, including the Innocence Project New Orleans, Step Up for Action, and the Vera Institute of Justice held forums with the candidates that questioned them on their plans for reform.

Last week the ACLU of Louisiana launched a six-figure advertising campaign to bring awareness to the race. While they didn’t formally endorse any candidate, it pushed voters to “end the failed war on drugs,” and noted that while Williams would not prosecute individual marijuana possession charges, Landrum “may continue Leon Cannizzaro’s policy of sending marijuana cases to Municipal Court.” 

Both Landrum and Williams to varying degrees pledged to reform the DA’s office and move away from the policies of the Cannizzaro administration. They both vowed to establish conviction integrity units to review old convictions and sentences, focus resources on violent crime, and never seek the death penalty. Both have promised a comprehensive review of cases that ended with non-unanimous guilty verdicts — an ambitious project involving hundreds of cases — even as the DA’s office is facing budget cuts. 

But Landrum, who worked as a prosecutor under Harry Connick Sr. and Eddie Jordan — and served as interim DA in 2007 and 2008 before running for judge — was widely seen as the more moderate candidate. 

She made the case to voters that her experience was necessary to make reforms to the office while remaining tough on violent crime and delivering justice for victims. She also gained the majority endorsements of much of the city’s political establishment — including New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell, U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond, and the majority of her opponent’s colleagues on the City Council. 

Williams, a defense attorney, cast himself as a progressive who has been fighting for a more just and humane criminal legal system for his entire career. He argued that the criminal justice system is both inherently racist and sexist, and vowed to never seek more punitive sentences through the use or threat of the habitual offender law, charge juveniles as adults, or use material witness warrants to seek the arrest of victims of crimes. He said he would dismiss low-level marijuana possession charges outright — which under Cannizzaro have most recently been charged as minor municipal offenses and tried in Municipal Court. 

In addition, Williams said that every prosecutor currently working for the Cannizzaro administration would need to reapply for their jobs if he took office.

Landrum, on the other hand, made somewhat more modest reform pledges. She said she would reserve the right to use material witness warrants for victims of crimes, charge juveniles as adults, and use the multiple offender bill — but would only do those things in exceptional circumstances. (Though, in some forums she seemed to suggest that she would not use or threaten the habitual offender statute at all.) 

With regard to marijuana possession, she said she would continue Cannizzaro’s practice of sending those cases to Municipal Court. 

Williams used those distinctions — along with Landrum’s time as a prosecutor and interim DA — to cast her as a continuation of the Cannizzaro administration. He pointed to reporting from 2008 that said Landrum, as DA, was charging second and third marijuana offenses as felonies, and to her handling of the case of Robert Jones in post conviction. Jones was convicted in 1996 of a series of  crimes including rape and armed robbery, but had it eventually overturned in 2015 after it was revealed that prosecutors had not turned over exculpatory evidence . 

Meanwhile, Landrum portrayed Williams as a grandstanding and opportunistic defense attorney who did not have the experience to take over the office. Her campaign claimed that Williams had made millions of dollars throughout his career “cold-blooded murderers and violent drug dealers.” 

She also hit Williams on the 11-count federal indictment that came just days before qualifying for the election, in which he is accused of inflating business expenses to avoid paying over $200,000 in taxes. 

Williams called the charges political and implicated without evidence the current DA Leon Cannizzaro, along with US Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump. He is currently seeking to have them tossed out on the basis that he is being selectively and vindictively prosecuted. 

The trial is set for early next year. Williams has said that the chances of him being convicted are about as likely as him getting hit by a bus.

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...