Sunday, May 16, 2010

New Orleans, LA: Recent domestic violence tragedies in New Orleans couldn't be prevented by moving cases to state court

By Gwen Filosa, The Times-Picayune
May 15, 2010, 11:28PM

Rusty Costanza / The Times-Picayune
Pallbearers carry one of four coffins to a waiting hearse after the funeral of four family members shot to death in April. A family memebr is charged in the deaths.

Alfred Andrews and Damian Jordan had a track record of abusing the women in their lives. But it barely registered on the court system's radar until their names became synonymous with murder.

Andrews, 78, is accused of gunning down his 31-year-old wife, her mother and her sister in Treme before shooting himself in the face. Two days earlier, Andrews was acquitted of misdemeanor battery after pushing his wife to the floor when she tried to leave their bedroom.

Jordan, 22, allegedly took out his rage on his uncle's girlfriend, her two children and her sister. Police say Jordan entered a relative's house in the Upper 9th Ward and shot them all: the adults in the bedrooms, the children in the bathroom. He was on probation at the time for hitting his girlfriend in the face with the butt of a rifle.

The massacres coincided with the one-year anniversary of a seismic shift in the way domestic violence cases are prosecuted. Last March, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro asked New Orleans police to bring domestic arrests to his office for review, rather than to the city attorney at Municipal Court.

Cannizzaro's goal: to charge more abusers under a state domestic violence statute, and put more of them behind bars.

Before that time, most domestic violence arrests landed in Municipal Court, where they shared the docket with petty offenses like public urination. In the years before the shift, an average of 93 percent of domestic violence cases, including many involving serious injury, were booked as municipal violations.

"The DA before Leon ignored these cases, because we just didn't take domestic violence seriously enough, and that's just true," said retired judge Calvin Johnson, who spent 17 years on the bench at Tulane and Broad. "The fact that men were brutalizing women, on some level, our male-dominated justice system thought it was OK. It was part of our sexism."

'Not treated as a crime'
Tania Tetlow, director of the Tulane Law School Domestic Violence Clinic and a former federal prosecutor, hails the move to state court.

"Until very recently, domestic violence was not treated as a crime in this community," Tetlow said. "My clients, until last year, had never seen their batterers spend a day in jail, unless they failed to pay a traffic ticket."

But it's still not clear how much harder state prosecution makes life for accused batterers. On the one hand, state court allows for the possibility of stiffer penalties and creates more of a permanent record. For repeat offenders, in particular, the consequences are real.

But the punishments don't always prevent abusers from striking again. In fact, both Andrews and Jordan faced state domestic-violence charges in the months before they allegedly committed murder, but both remained free to abuse.

Taking over domestic violence has substantially increased the size of Cannizzaro's docket.

In 2009, he reviewed 1,923 domestic violence arrests, more than five times the number brought before former District Attorney Eddie Jordan in an average year, records show. Cannizzaro agreed to prosecute 80 percent of the cases.

In the cases from last year that have been litigated thus far, Cannizzaro reports an 85 percent conviction rate.

By comparison, nearly all of the roughly 3,000 domestic-violence arrests made by New Orleans police annually in years past were sent to Municipal Court, and when they got there, more than half the cases were dismissed. In those that weren't, the city attorney's office often sent offenders to a 26-week anger management program in lieu of trial. Though data is spotty, there were few if any trials.

To handle the cases, Municipal Court had a domestic-violence coordinator, plus a probation officer and four city attorneys.

Cannizzaro's domestic violence unit, by comparison, has six prosecutors, four witness and victim advocates, and one investigator.

Rusty Costanza / The Times-Picayune
The Treme home where Alfred Andrews killed his wife, sister and mother before shooting himself in April.
Cannizzaro's witness and victim assistance program also is more robust than that of his predecessors in the DA's office. It includes counselors with master's degrees, and the office practices "vertical prosecution," meaning one lawyer stays with a case from inception through trial.

Hold back nothing
Cannizzaro said he has told his prosecutors to hold back nothing at trial. Present the 911 tapes, the photographs, the witnesses, he said.

"Children can testify," said Cannizzaro, who served 22 years as a judge. "These sorts of things destroy a family and disrupt what is the normal and healthy growth of a child. That child may grow up believing it's OK to strike a household member. He or she may think it's OK to be the victim; that it's OK to live like that or take that to the streets."

Mary Claire Landry, director of domestic violence services for Catholic Charities and director of the Family Justice Center, says batterers now face swifter consequences -- namely higher bonds and supervision by the court, including drug testing.

The state courts can convert a third misdemeanor charge into an instant felony, Landry said, giving judges the ability to hand down harsher penalties. On the second offense, batterers now must spend 30 days behind bars, and a third offense means one year in prison. Offenders are also now monitored by Louisiana probation officers

"This is not possible in Municipal Court," said Landry, who credits the DA with making huge strides in victim safety.

Landry heads the Family Justice Center, the city's domestic abuse headquarters, which opened in 2007 with a $3 million federal grant. Cannizzaro's unit is based, there, along with three New Orleans police detectives.

Since it opened, the center has served almost 2,000 people swept up in domestic violence, working alongside the Tulane Law Clinic, New Orleans Legal Aid Corp. and programs that offer temporary housing, counseling, GED courses and employment assistance.

Victim no longer can elect to drop charges
On a recent morning, a woman who stopped by the center, getting buzzed in through the front door, asked to speak to a "screener." She wanted to drop the charges against her boyfriend.

That's no longer possible, she was told.

At Municipal Court, victims could simply sign an affidavit indicating that they wanted nothing to do with prosecution and the cases went away. Not so in state court.

Word of that change is still getting out, however.

In April, Magistrate Commissioner Anthony Russo made a blanket announcement to the audience at Tulane and Broad: "It's up to the DA's office," he said. "It's no longer up to the victim to determine whether he or she will pursue it."

Not everyone is a fan of the new system. Some state judges, in particular, thought the old system was preferable.

"They were experts in doing it," said Criminal District Court Chief Judge Arthur Hunter, who, like the court's senior jurist, Judge Frank Marullo, is skeptical of the shift. "They had a whole support team. It's the same sentence whether it's Municipal Court or here. Just a change of venue."

Deante Brumfield, center, sucker-punches his estranged girlfriend on an RTA streetcar in January in this photo taken from RTA surveillance video.
Marullo recently acquitted Deante Brumfield, 24, of domestic violence battery. Brumfield was captured on videotape sucker-punching his ex-girlfriend in the face on a streetcar ride.

During the brief trial, Marullo criticized the district attorney's office for bringing such a penny-ante case before him.

"We have taken these domestic-violence cases from Municipal Court and we're sitting here with all these cases when we have cases where people get shot and things like that," Marullo said. "And we're sitting here with this case."

The DA, however, is sticking to his guns, saying all cases involving physical violence belong in state court.

'There is some confusion'
While Former Judge Johnson said he generally supports the venue change imposed by Cannizzaro, he isn't sure every single domestic violence battery should end up at Tulane and Broad.

"They should be triaged out," said Johnson. "There is some confusion. A couple got into a fight and the woman hit the man and the man hit the woman. They both ended up arrested and in state court. That kind of incident shouldn't have gone into the state system."

In fact, about 1,000 cases a year that meet the layman's definition of domestic violence are still being funneled to Municipal Court, said Michael Groetsch, a senior probation officer who is also an author and researcher in the field of predatory batterers.

Those cases may be so minor as to not warrant a state charge, or they may involve fights between two people whose relationship does not meet the state definition of domestic.

For instance, the state domestic abuse battery law applies only to opposite-sex couples, leaving gay couples protected only under the city ordinance. The city ordinance also generally makes pushes, shoves and threats illegal acts for which police can issue a municipal summons.

Groetsch said he would have preferred what he calls a hybrid court system that shares the cases between the Municipal and Criminal District Courts based on the seriousness of the crime and repeat offenders. "Unless we're vigilant, that might get by us."

Far from perfect
While an improvement, recent experience shows that the new system is far from perfect.

On March 29, a magistrate commissioner at Criminal District Court -- not an elected judge -- freed Andrews of a domestic abuse battery charge. In explaining her decision, Commissioner Marie Bookman said: "I get the impression from the testimony of the defendant, and given his age, that he has a certain way he does things and that he is set in his ways."

Two days later, police say, Andrews gunned down his wife, her mother and her sister at the house the four shared in Treme.

It's up to judges at Tulane and Broad to choose whether they want to hear misdemeanor battery cases. Chief Judge Arthur Hunter, among other judges, sends his to Magistrate Commissioner Gerard Hansen, who runs a "domestic violence court" that includes a specialized probation office.

One such convict was Todd Fussell, 47, who pleaded guilty in March to domestic battery for punching his ex-girlfriend in the eye two months earlier.

Fussell received a suspended six-month jail term from Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson; she also ordered him monitored by Hansen's court and signed another stay-away order.

Thirteen days later, police say, Fussell returned to his ex-girlfriend's home with a knife, forcing himself through the front door and stabbing her repeatedly.

Fussell is now accused of attempted murder. On April 14, Landrum-Johnson revoked his probation, meaning he'll have to serve the six-month sentence for the earlier battery.

Rusty Costanza / The Times-Picayune
Joseph Ross, right, is comforted during the funeral for his girlfriend and their two children in April. A relative of Ross' has been arrested in the murders of the three and the woman's sister.
And then there is Jordan. In July 2009, Landrum-Johnson sentenced Jordan to five years in prison -- all suspended -- for burglary and battery of his girlfriend. Jordan agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges. He had originally been charged with home invasion, for taking the butt of a rifle to his girlfriend's face after using it to break down her front door on North Tonti Street.

That case revealed other systemic flaws. Notably, Municipal Court and state court don't share a computer database, even though the two courthouses are only blocks apart.

So Landrum-Johnson viewed Jordan as a first-time offender, when he in fact had a May 2008 conviction from Municipal Court for punching his sister. He also had a pending domestic battery charge in Municipal Court for allegedly hurting the same girlfriend.

For the two convictions, Jordan spent a grand total of 21 days behind bars.

On March 25, police say Jordan shot to death his uncle's girlfriend, her two children, and her sister. Police believe Jordan, a cousin of the two children, was in search of money.

An important first step
Despite those high-profile lapses, observers say the shift to state court is an important first step in treating domestic violence with the severity it demands.

"At the end of the day, cases of physical violence belong at state court," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission. "Domestic violence qualifies for that. Yes, they are nasty; they are sometimes he said-she said; they are sometimes hard to prove. But the potential for serious violence is there. I think we've learned that the hard way over the past weeks."

Landry, of the Family Justice Center, said the recent domestic murders overshadow tremendous progress in the system.

"While we have focused recently on several high-profile cases where we were unable to prevent violent acts, during this time we were also able to assist hundreds of survivors with support, life-saving strategies and effective prosecution and batterer accountability that never becomes public or is known by anyone other than those of us involved in the case," she said.

Gwen Filosa can be reached at or 504.826.3304.

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