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

During his first month in office, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams dismissed over 400 cases — totaling over 700 individual charges — that were being prosecuted by former DA Leon Cannizzaro’s office. The majority of the dismissed charges were drug related, while 89 were domestic violence related and 80 were for weapons charges.

“This administration is committed to correcting the sins of the past and creating space for a laser-focused prosecution of violent crimes,” said First Assistant Bob White in an email providing the records, which were obtained through a public records request.* “Clearing the docket of minor matters allows the office to fulfill those promises to the public.”

During his campaign, Williams said he would focus the office’s resources combating violent crime by reducing the number of prosecutions for things like low-level drug offenses, and has long been critical of the Cannizzaro administration’s high case acceptance rate. 

And shortly after taking office early this year, Williams suggested to The Lens that there would likely be a significant number of cases dismissed that had already been accepted by Cannizzaro, criticizing the lack of stringency in the screening procedures of the previous administration. 

“Simply put, cases have not been screened,” Williams said in January. “Everything was basically accepted, which means that there are a number of things that would not have made it past screening in every other parish in the state. And so we are endeavoring to deal with that.”

The reasons given for the dismissals during the first month varied. Some cases were tossed because testimony of a witness was insufficient to prove the crime. Others are listed as “not suitable for prosecution.” A number of the defendants were placed into the DA’s diversion program. 

But the reason most often given for a dismissal was “interest of justice.” Asked to clarify what exactly that meant, Williams said in an email that it was a measure of both the evidence in the case along with the defendant’s prior criminal record. 

“The interest of justice is based on the facts as they exist today with the current position or input of the victim, if any, and the criminal record of the accused, or lack thereof, warrants a dismissal,” Williams said. He noted that those determinations were “particularly crucial in light of the bloated dockets brought on by the high acceptance rate and the COVID-19 backlog.”

In the same time period, the office also accepted 247 cases — the majority of which were either weapons or narcotics related, according to statistics the DA’s office provided. Five were for second degree murder. 

White, in the email, said that because there is a four-month period during which the office can decide whether or not to pursue homicide charges, it would take until April or May to get a  “better sense of the homicide cases accepted at the start of the Williams administration.”

Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said that his office has been working with Williams to move through the backlog of cases that have been piling up during the pandemic. 

“We have been working together — our leadership at the public defender’s office, and the leadership at the district attorney’s office — to identify those cases where there could be a resolution achieved quickly, including dismissal,” Bunton said. “They’ve been operating in good faith with that.” 

He said that was a significant departure from what his office had experienced with Cannizzaro’s office. 

“The level of engagement and communication has been night and day compared to the prior administration,” Bunton said. 

Officials in the public defenders office previously indicated that they were putting together a list of cases that they would provide to the DA’s office for dismissal. But Williams said that his office was not working from a list. The cases were evaluated “as they came up on the dockets in the sections of court.” 

“We will continue to maintain an individualized and thorough screening process throughout our entire tenure,” Williams said. “If evidence is lacking, if racial profiling was present, if the constitution was violated, then those cases will not be accepted.” 

Williams also suggested during his campaign that the prior administration’s high case acceptance implied that they were accepting cases based on legally dubious arrests, and has said his office will keep a list of officers who have been accused of misconduct or profiling who he will not accept cases from. 

Eric Hessler, a lawyer who represents the Police Association of New Orleans, said the dismissals weren’t surprising given what Williams campaigned on, but that he thought they could be discouraging for officers. 

“Obviously, it’s a bit disappointing to police officers when they make what they feel is a lawful, constitutional, and certainly valid arrest — a necessary arrest —and it goes nowhere,” Hessler said. “It seems to be a waste of resources, and sometimes it can wear on them.”

“But you know,” he added, “he was elected to do what he said he was going to do, and apparently he is following through with it.”

*After publication, the DA’s office informed The Lens that statements in an email sent by Assistant District Attorney Donna Andrieu should have been attributed to First Assistant Bob White.

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...