As Jason Williams campaigned for district attorney four years ago, he faced actual opponents. But he may have run hardest against someone who was not in the race — his would-be predecessor, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
Cannizzaro had held the office as the city’s top prosecutor since 2008, but declined to seek reelection.
Throughout Williams’ tenure as a city councilman, he had blasted Cannizzaro’s entire world-view: his “win at all costs” tactics; his use of the state’s habitual-offender laws; his decision to charge kids as adults, his use of fake subpoenas and material-witness warrants to jail crime victims in order to secure testimony.
Those tactics, Williams said, led to untold wrongful convictions, racial disparities in sentencing, and furthered the plague of mass incarceration in the state.
He even alleged that Cannizzaro played a role in orchestrating a political hit job against him — the federal indictment for tax fraud, handed down by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Louisiana, for which he could have faced years in prison, had a jury not found him not guilty on all 10 counts in 2022.
“What this really is is the beginning of Leon Cannizzaro’s reelection campaign,” Williams said of the indictment, which came down in June of 2020, before Cannizzaro announced that he would not, in fact, seek reelection.
Williams used the insinuation to fundraise for his campaign. “On the City Council, I have led the fight against Leon Cannizzaro and his repressive and illegal prosecutorial tactics that too often deny justice for all,” Williams said, according to NOLA.com. “So, I knew they would come after me, but the stakes are too high to back down now. Chip in to help us wage this battle.”
Cannizzaro called Williams “delusional” and said that the indictment laid out “a compelling case against a corrupt politician.”
Ultimately, Williams won election, beating Keva Landrum in a runoff by casting her as someone who would continue Cannizzaro-era prosecution. In January of 2021, Williams took office and swiftly fired 10 former Cannizzaro employees, promising a full-on culture change in the office.
Cannizzaro, for his part, took a position in the state attorney general’s office, under then-A.G. Jeff Landry. His role could change under the new AG, Liz Murrill, who acted as solicitor general when Landry ran that office. But to date, Cannizzaro is still there, serving as director of the criminal division, which can include overseeing criminal prosecutions in local jurisdictions – but only when asked by parish prosecutors, most often after recusals.
Over the past three years, Williams backed off some of his more progressive pledges. He now routinely charges kids as adults, uses the habitual-offender bill, and has applied pressure to judges to set higher bonds. When asked about a year ago about his shifting stances, Williams said, “There are campaign promises, and there’s an oath. The oath is to do this job.”
Given the shifts, some observers had already begun to question how much daylight still existed between Williams and the offices that preceded him.
Still, to some, it seemed jarring to see Williams standing next to Landry and Murrill at the Superdome in December, shortly after Landry’s election. There, the three of them announced an unlikely, possibly unprecedented, agreement: prosecutors from Murrill’s office will spend time in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, to handle cases stemming from state police arrests and investigations in the city.
At the same press conference, Landry announced an expanded state-police presence in the city. Though a timeline had not been set, officials say that they are preparing to deploy a 40-trooper unit, dubbed Troop NOLA, to New Orleans.
On Monday, shortly after this story was first published, Williams’ office released a CEA between his office and the AG, signed at the end of November. The agreement gives the AG’s office full authority to handle any state police cases in New Orleans from start to finish — from investigation, initiation of charges, trial, and even post-conviction matters.
It also gives the Louisiana State Police’s Force Investigation Unit authority to handle any investigations related to law enforcement uses of force when they arise from arrests or investigations by state police. Any criminal matters related to those incidents would be prosecuted by the AG’s office.
The announcement comes at a time when conservatives across the country are targeting other local progressive prosecutors, hoping to strip them of power.
Republican lawmakers in other states have passed bills allowing state attorneys general to step in to prosecute certain crimes refused by local DA’s. Other bills sought to impeach local prosecutors or suspend them from office. Landry seems inclined to take Louisiana in a similar direction. On his campaign website he bemoaned “woke” district attorneys playing a dangerous game of “catch and release” — a clear reference to Williams.
When viewed against national dynamics, the new New Orleans partnership seems to provide a unique counterpoint. Though the state would not usually have the authority to enter the Orleans courthouse and try cases, Williams has invited prosecutors from within an office run by Donald Trump-backed Liz Murrill, to handle cases instigated by the state police, an agency under federal investigation for racial profiling and excessive force by troopers.
“None of this would be possible without the permission of Jason Williams,” said Rafael Goyeneche, director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
It’s another step away from the stances Williams held during his campaign, say some observers who supported him then.
Majeeda Snead, a clinical law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, who has been a criminal-defense attorney in the city for decades, said that she had been hopeful about Williams’ election and the possibility of a new approach to prosecution at Tulane and Broad.
“It is definitely in contradiction to this reform platform that he ran on,” said Snead, of the agreement with the AG’s office “Everybody wants to feel safe in their own communities. The question becomes, what is the best approach? We have had a history of ‘lock them up, throw away the key.’ I don’t care how long we’ve done it, it has not worked.”
It’s unclear what negotiations led to the agreement between Williams and Landry, or who suggested it.
Neither office responded to specific questions regarding the arrangement.
At the Superdome press conference, Williams cast it as a win-win for his office and the city, and applauded the governor for committing both police and prosecutorial resources to New Orleans, which he said he has long sought.
He framed it as a unique instance of bipartisan productivity, downplaying any ideological divide between the two offices.
“It’s no secret that I’m a Democrat and it’s no secret that Jeff is a Republican,” Williams said. “When you look around the country you don’t see Republicans and Democrats sitting down to solve the toughest problems, and that’s what we’ve been doing, focusing on crime in the city of New Orleans.”
Still, the two men were elected on almost diametrically opposed criminal-justice platforms.
While Williams pilloried Louisiana’s uniquely punitive approach to public safety, Landry wants to roll back a 2017 bipartisan criminal-justice reform package that reduced prison populations. Williams applauded the NOPD consent decree for improving the department, and vowed to use his authority as DA to keep up the pressure and root out police misconduct. Landry has derided the federal oversight as maintaining “hug a thug” policies. And Williams has promised to review all split-jury convictions out of New Orleans, arguing that they are inherently racist. Landry, as AG, fought in state and federal court to uphold them.
The list goes on.
Yet there are still some prosecutorial tactics that Williams has opted not to use. While the habitual offender law is back on the table, the office policy is only to use it in “rare and exceptional circumstances” and when someone is charged with a crime of violence or a sex offense. And Williams has thus far kept his promise to never seek the death penalty.
Prosecutors with the AG’s office may choose to take different tacks. Landry has been a vocal advocate for the death penalty. While Cannizzaro was DA, he used the habitual-offender statute more than any other prosecutor in the state, though that usage declined later in his tenure.)
Still, when it comes to the general culture of the office in day-to-day prosecutions, Snead said that, at this point Williams’ administration had moved so far from the progressive vision laid out during the campaign that she didn’t see much difference between cases handled by his office and prior administrations.
“I haven’t seen a change,” Snead said. “I don’t see much empathy.”
If anything, she said, she has found that cases more swiftly in some cases where Williams has recused himself, which puts her up against prosecutors with the AG’s office, including some who worked previously under Cannizzaro.
“I’m seeing faces that I’m familiar with,” Snead said. “And they seem to help move cases much quicker.”
It’s unclear what role, exactly, Cannizzaro will play in the state police prosecutions in New Orleans, assuming that he continues in his position under Murrill. The AG’s office did not respond to specific questions about the agreement with Williams, or whether Cannizzaro would remain in his position.
Increased state police
At the Superdome press conference, Landry said that under the agreement, the AG’s office would handle the prosecutions of the following: any arrests made by the Louisiana State Police or those agencies working under the direct supervision of the agency; investigations made by the Louisiana State Police or those agencies working under the direct supervision of LSP; arrests and investigations by state police, and those agencies working directly under them.
Last year, the agency made 121 arrests in New Orleans, according to data from the City Council website — a tiny fraction of the nearly 7,000 arrests citywide. LSP arrest numbers are likely to increase dramatically, once Troop NOLA begins patrolling New Orleans.
Advocates have raised concerns that state police won’t abide by the consent decree, will do little to prevent violent crime, and may commit their resources to policing low-level violations.
“Increased police presence usually just increases misdemeanor arrest,” said Sarah Omojola, director of the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice. “That’s what the research shows us — that there’s just an increase of low-level stuff, but not an increase in closure rates of homicides or addressing or solving what is deemed to be violent crime. So my true concern is that they’ll only be policing poverty.”
But the spike in the city’s violent crime that began in 2020 alarmed many New Orleans residents and officials, who have generally reacted by pointing fingers at the DA and police — and, in the case of the bumbled summer-jobs programs, at the mayor’s office. So when the new governor bounded into town, offering to help bolster law-enforcement numbers and boost prosecutions, it is perhaps unsurprising that Williams and Kirkpatrick agreed, on behalf of their embattled offices. To some citizens who have tired of hearing about three-hour waits for police response and murder cases that drag on pre-trial for a few years, the idea also seems worth trying.
Who will set the tone
By giving the AG’s Office authority to screen cases and initiate charges, Williams will be handing over a portion of the prosecutorial process that he has previously said can facilitate shoddy police work, drive resources to low-level cases, and increase the jail population.
Another big question is who will be in charge of deciding whether or not to charge the cases brought by state-police arrests or investigations — a process known as screening.
During his campaign, Williams vowed to implement a much more robust screening process. That was an intentional change in mindset from Cannizzaro, Williams said, dinging Cannizzaro for accepting an out-of-whack proportion of cases, too many of which were built on shaky police work, with slim evidence, he said.
Shortly after taking office and assessing the work load, he doubled down, telling The Lens, “Simply put, cases have not been screened. 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.”
Williams’ office ultimately tossed out 400 Cannizzaro-era charges.
Since then, Williams has kept some promises. For the most part, he has declined to prosecute stand-alone drug-possession charges, except heroin and fentanyl. He has also said that his office will not prioritize any abortion-related charges.
But the AG’s office may have other ideas. Last summer, in response to statements from city leaders, including Williams, about abortion law, Landry threatened to withhold state funding for New Orleans city projects, including a new power plant for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans.
“Right now there are too many unknowns,” said Lindsey Hortenstine, spokesperson for the Orleans Public Defenders in a statement. “We as a community did significant collaborative work to push for policing and prosecution that is constitutional, transparent, and accountable. While there have been improvements, there is still much work to do, to ensure the proven accountability measures remain throughout the system. “
This story has been updated with details of a formal cooperative endeavor agreement between Attorney General Liz Murrill and District Attorney Jason Williams that was released shortly after initial publication.