It may have passed you by amid the insurrection and inauguration and return of indoor dining, but New Orleans—the prison capital of the prison capital of the prison capital of the world—has a new district attorney. More than 1 percent of Louisiana’s population is behind bars—almost double the national average—and the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office has long been one of the main reasons for it.
But that is set to change. In a runoff election last December, Jason Williams, a 48-year-old former criminal-defense attorney, ascended to the post despite not having a single major political endorsement. His calls to overturn wrongful convictions and inhumane sentences were as unusual to hear in New Orleans as a citywide call for sobriety.
Ever since Harry Connick Sr.—father of ivory-tinkler Harry Connick Jr.—became New Orleans’ district attorney in the 1970s, sweeping out his corruption-plagued and conspiracy-addled predecessor Jim Garrison, the office has been known for being ruthless and unscrupulous in equal measure. Habitual-offender statutes saw life terms doled out for petty criminal offenses, 16-year-olds were placed on death row, and allegations of systemic misconduct abounded. Connick’s equally ferocious protégé, Leon Cannizzaro, was infamous for sending fake subpoenas, losing vital evidence that could exculpate prisoners, and jailing victims of domestic and sexual violence. All this contributed to a sky-high incarceration rate and failed to stop New Orleans from being perennially one of the deadliest cities in the United States.
In his first weeks on the job, Williams made radical changes. He fired Cannizzaro loyalists and hired both Emily Maw, a former director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, and Ben Cohen, a lawyer who helped overturn Louisiana’s rule allowing defendants to be convicted by non-unanimous juries. Williams was attacking the city’s ingrained systems of injustice from the inside. But reform doesn’t come easy to the Big Easy.
Last year, just days before Williams launched his campaign, the Trump Justice Department announced a federal-tax-fraud indictment against him. Williams was accused of 11 assorted violations of federal law, including conspiring and aiding in the filing of false tax returns. Nothing could have been more perfectly timed to prevent Williams from winning the D.A.’s Office.
His calls to overturn wrongful convictions and inhumane sentences were as unusual to hear in New Orleans as a citywide call for sobriety.
At the heart of the indictment is the allegation that Williams’s tax preparer was overly zealous in deducting business expenses for his client. Seeking a dismissal, Williams argued that the indictment had been handed down at the urging of Cannizzaro, who was considering running for re-election. (He later chose not to.)
Williams showed that the tax preparer had listed exactly the same deductions for approximately 1,000 of his business clients, yet only Williams and his business partner were being prosecuted. There was also the fact that some of the charges leveled against Williams had not been seen in a Louisiana court for half a century. The conservative judge overseeing the motion called the decision to prosecute Williams “curious and troubling” but declined to throw it out.
Williams lost that battle but won the election. Indeed, he embraced the attacks against him, with posters depicting him as St. Sebastian, in shirt and tie, embedded with arrows. But if the people are with him, the entrenched interests in the state are not. Incarceration is big business in Louisiana. Private prison companies make billions from the government, and prisoners are rented out as cheap manual labor to many of the state’s oil and gas firms, creating a form of indentured servitude that is all but slavery by another name.
Williams’s trial date is set for November 1. If found guilty, he would be forced to step down as district attorney, and the chance of reforming the most reform-resistant prison system in America would be lost. It seems uncertain whether the Biden administration will bring itself to intervene in this Trump legacy prosecution. Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana representative who is now one of Biden’s top aides, backed Williams’s opponent in the race for district attorney and is said to have cool relations with him. So it is down to Williams to win the trial by himself. The fates of thousands of young and old New Orleanians hang in the balance.