Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
Criminal Negligence
The feds are paying to rebuild New Orleans on a civic swamp.
8 March 2006

President Bush visits New Orleans today to encourage Congress to devote more money to the city’s recovery from Katrina. But as Congress and the president disburse billions of dollars for the Big Easy’s reconstruction, they should wonder if it’s wise to spend so much to repair New Orleans’s physical infrastructure without considering whether or not New Orleans is putting the minimum civic infrastructure in place to build a competitive American city.

New Orleans does need plenty of what Washington is giving out, of course: money to repair levees, roads, bridges, and homes. But the city needs something else just as desperately: a functional criminal-justice system. Over the past six months, New Orleans’s politicians haven’t sounded the alarm on the city’s broken justice system as loudly as they have on the city’s broken levees.

Dysfunctional justice in New Orleans is nothing new. Before Katrina, the Big Easy’s arrest, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing rates were shamefully low, explaining why New Orleans suffered from the highest per-capita homicide rate in the nation. But this protracted failure of leadership in dispensing justice didn’t wash away with Katrina. Today, New Orleans’s unique version of justice is back, evidence that while Katrina transformed the city forever, some things never change.

Consider the story of 19-year-old Jamal Watson, formerly of New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward. More than a year before Katrina, Watson participated in what local prosecutors charitably called an armed robbery. The robbery ended in the shooting death of an innocent man, Nathaniel Robertson, Sr., who fled down Jourdan Street in a failed bid to escape the five robbers who had demanded his truck.

The homes and inhabitants of Jourdan Street are gone now, flooded out. But Robertson’s death still demanded a measure of justice. The failed New Orleans justice system wasn’t likely to achieve that before Katrina, and it certainly didn’t achieve it after. Instead, prosecutor and judge alike have treated Watson’s case as one might treat a nuisance misdemeanor charge.

Of the five suspects who accosted Robertson in 2004, none ever faced charges for his murder. Watson, one of two men indicted before Katrina for the armed robbery, spent the months after Katrina in a Louisiana jail, following the evacuation of Orleans Parish Prison. In late January, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, a judge freed Watson with prosecutors’ assent after he pleaded guilty to simple robbery and took a sentence of time served. “OK, Jamal Watson,” the sentencing judge intoned, closing the case. “Good luck to you, man.” Watson now lives in Kentucky with his mother, where no one knows of his violent past. One might chalk this miscarriage of justice up to prosecutors’ difficulty in lining up testimony against Watson after Katrina washed out most of those who lived in New Orleans, save for the fact that even before Katrina, they hadn’t made any headway in the case for more than a year, having dropped charges against Watson’s co-defendant last April.

But New Orleans has put at least one person in jail after Katrina: its criminal-court clerk. In early March, after a week of ducking an arrest warrant, Clerk Kimberly Butler was jailed for contempt, in part for defying a judge’s order to cooperate with a former colleague appointed by the state to salvage evidence for court cases from a flooded downtown building. Butler refused to comply with the order, insisting that it usurped her authority. The judge can’t simply fire Butler for her alleged insubordination, as she is an elected official.

New Orleans could have spent the last two weeks having a public discussion on how to reform its criminal-justice system. Then, it might credibly ask for emergency federal funding to pay the lawyers, judges, and support staff needed to process thousands of pending cases, including more than 40 capital cases, most of them opened before Katrina. As with everything else in New Orleans post-Katrina, clearing the criminal dockets won’t be easy: jailed defendants wound up evacuated to prisons across the state, some of those out on bail are missing, witnesses and court employees are scattered around the country, and evidence is damaged.

But, again, as with everything else in New Orleans post-Katrina, city officials haven’t risen to try to accomplish a difficult task. Instead, the city has spent the last two weeks caught up in Butler’s political drama. As if that weren’t bad enough, Butler is now running for mayor, on a platform of identifying with those on the other side of the docket. “Now, all of sudden, I’ve had to stand in court, and I can identify with people that had to stand in court,” she declared before going to jail. Yes, just what New Orleans needs: more sympathy for fugitive defendants.

New Orleans must assure Congress and the president that it has the resources it needs—financial and political—to clear its criminal-court docket in a manner that assures public safety, both for returning New Orleanians and for the rest of the country. New Orleans’s attitude seems to be: hope that federal taxpayers don’t notice that the city is importing money from the rest of the nation even as it exports freed criminals.

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