Former New Orleans City Councilman and long-time defense attorney Jason Williams was inaugurated Monday as Orleans Parish District Attorney, promising to bring sweeping changes to what he has described as a racist and misogynistic criminal justice system in the city that fails to keep people safe.
Williams, who was elected in December, replaces two-term DA Leon Cannizzaro. In July, Cannizzaro, a frequent target of criticism from Williams and criminal justice advocates, announced that he would not seek a third term.
“We can use our criminal laws for public safety without using them for racial oppression,” Williams said in his inaugural address. “But you see, for far too long, we have allowed powerful interests across this country to confuse in our minds those two goals. And that is why we have become the most incarcerated country in modern history. And New Orleans, our home, has been the epicenter of that dreadful distinction.”
The ceremony took place at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans East, attended by only a small number of people due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Live video of the ceremony was available online.) Williams was sworn in by newly elected Criminal District Court Judge Nandi Campbell, who also used to work as an attorney at Williams’ private law firm.
Williams ran as a “progressive prosecutor,” vowing to fight mass incarceration by ending punitive practices such as the prosecution of low-level marijuana charges, the use of the habitual offender bill, charging juveniles in adult court, and seeking the death penalty.
In his inaugural address, Williams promised that he would hold people who commit serious crimes accountable, but wouldn’t waste resources on low-level offenses that stem directly from drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty.
“Let me be absolutely clear,” Williams said, “those looking to skirt justice, those who think they will not be held accountable for heinous crimes, know this: We have been and we are building a team of the best and brightest attorneys and investigators that this office has ever seen. And I will train them myself to be extraordinary at their craft.”
“If you commit a serious crime to Orleans Parish, you will face consequences,” Williams said. “But in order to have the energy and resources to focus on these most heinous and harmful crimes, we will no longer clog up court dockets with cases that arise out of addiction, and mental illness, and homelessness.”
Instead, Williams said he will partner with “health care providers, and congregations, and social workers, and intervention experts to find solutions outside of the criminal legal system to deal with the root causes of criminal behavior.”
“We’ve got to go beyond punishment and invest in our community to heal, restore, and create justice that endures,” he said.
He also promised to work with the Mayor and City Council “to conceptualize a comprehensive strategy to finally address domestic violence throughout our city.”
Williams has also promised to end what he has called decades old “win at all costs” culture in the office under Cannizzaro and previous DAs, which he says has led to overly aggressive tactics and wrongful convictions.
“Because you see, fighting for victims does not mean stacking up convictions,” Williams said Monday. “Fighting for victims does not mean using police and prosecutorial power to intimidate those caught up in the criminal legal system. Fighting for victims does not mean scaring an innocent person until he pleads guilty to a lesser crime that was never even committed.”
Williams announced shortly after his election that he had hired former Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw to oversee what he describes as a “robust” Civil Rights Division, which will review potential past wrongful convictions, excessive sentences, and over 300 cases of people still in prison on non-unanimous jury verdicts.
He has required everyone who worked for the previous administration to reapply for their jobs. A spokesperson for Williams’ has not responded to requests from The Lens for information regarding the hiring process and what percentage of prosecutors from the previous administration will continue practicing in the office.
“A DA who is truly accountable to people knows that this office holds the keys to making change at both a systemic and the individual level,” Williams said. “And we know that individuals in the criminal legal system are not merely the names that appear on the court document. Each person has a story. Each person is someone’s child, each person has inherent worth, and God given humanity. We also know that some of them are innocent.”
Monday also brought some clarity regarding Williams’ now vacant at-large seat on the City Council. Tyronne Walker, Williams former campaign manager and transition director, said that his resignation of the seat was effective Monday at 11 a.m., meaning his seat will be filled by an appointment by members of the City Council. If he had decided to resign any earlier, there would have been more than a year left in his term. Under city law, that means the seat would have been required to be filled by a special election.
On Monday morning about an hour before the ceremony began, Walker told The Lens that Williams had not recommended an interim candidate for the council to consider. Council President Helena Moreno on Monday announced the opening of applications for the post.
Williams is facing several challenges as he takes office. There is a massive case backlog at the Criminal District Court due to the suspension of jury trials, violent crime has seen a dramatic increase, and the DAs office is facing an over 20 percent budget cut — in part thanks to Williams own advocacy for increased public defender funding on the City Council.
And he is also navigating an 11-count tax fraud indictment. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman ruled against his motion to dismiss those charges, meaning it is likely to go to trial. Williams has maintained his innocence, arguing that he was selectively and vindictively targeted for prosecution, and that the charges are politically motivated.
The trial had been scheduled for the same day as his inauguration, but has been pushed back indefinitely due to pandemic-related court restrictions.
Williams is also facing some skepticism from law enforcement. As one of his reforms, Williams has said that like a number of other DAs offices throughout the country, he plans to keep a list of officers who have engaged in misconduct who he will not take cases from. Mike Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans told The Lens last month that he had some concerns about Williams’ history as a defense attorney.
“I don’t know that he has been supportive of law enforcement in general,” Glasser said. “Based on his history — he is a lifetime defense attorney. I don’t believe he’s ever prosecuted a case to my knowledge. So I don’t see him as generally having a balanced, shall we say, a balanced experience base….But it has to remain to be seen, it’s impossible for me to predict what’s going to happen.”
But Williams has pointed to his strong relationship with NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson, who served as a member of his transition team, and has said that he has a “wonderful working relationship” with NOPD “leadership and with rank-and-file officers.”
The ceremony on Monday also indirectly brought up questions regarding how Williams, after decades as a criminal defense attorney, will handle potential conflicts of interest in his office. New Orleans trombonist Glen David Andrews performed at the inauguration. He also has three open cases* in Criminal District Court, meaning he faces charges filed by what is now Williams’ office. Williams has claimed to have represented Andrews in the past, though The Lens could not immediately identify any cases where Williams was listed as his attorney. But Robert Hjortsberg, an attorney who has worked in Williams law firm, is currently the counsel of record in both open cases and at least one previous case stemming from violent confrontations with a woman he dated. In that case, Andrews pleaded guilty to domestic violence by strangulation and aggravated assault.
A spokesperson for Williams did not immediately respond to questions about how Williams plans to handle Andrews’ pending cases or other cases where such a conflict may exist.
After winning the election without the support of the majority of the political establishment in the city — the Mayor, along with all but one member of the City Council, supported his opponent, former Judge Keva Landrum — Williams asked for the support of the community and the rest of the criminal justice community to support his effort to transform the system, calling it a “group lift.”
“We all know that what we’ve been doing for so long has not been working and has not served us,” Williams said. “We cannot deliver this change overnight. It’s going to take patience. It’s going to take everyone pitching in and working with us.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Glen David Andrews was facing two open cases in Criminal District Court as of the day of Williams’ inauguration. Andrews was facing three open cases at the time. (Jan. 12, 2020)