Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More from our interview with DA Leon Cannizzaro

Posted By on Tue, Dec 6, 2011 at 4:01 PM

This week's cover story — a Q&A with District Attorney Leon Cannizzarofocused mostly on his office and "Brady laws," which require prosecutors to turn over any exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys. But we had a couple of interesting digressions along the way, including one about a recent high-profile prosecution, witness safety and contraband controls at Orleans Parish Prison. It's presented here in slightly redacted form.

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GAMBIT: You've said your office can't protect every family member of everybody that testifies.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY LEON CANNIZZARO: Correct.

G: But when the public sees how easily their family members can be done in in something like the Curtis Matthews case, what can you tell the public to make them want to testify?

CANNIZZARO: Well, I think that the public is the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system serves the public, but the public makes up the criminal justice system. If we don't have the participation of witnesses, if we don't have their involvement, then there is no criminal justice system. Again, I basically urge them to give this system a chance, to give this process a chance. You know, John Matthews was shot, I think it was seven or eight times in his own home prior to his testifying against Telly Hankton. And as a result of that shooting, he came forth and testified not once, but twice. He had a greater resolve, in my opinion, to show Telly Hankton and people of his ilk that you are not going to influence me, you are not going to intimidate me and run me away from doing what is the right thing. To me, he was a hero in that case. …

G: I don't think anyone is arguing the heroism of someone like a John Matthews. But in 2010 you urged Hankton be moved out of OPP [Orleans Parish Prison].

CANNIZZARO: Yes.

G: And obviously your thinking was that it was just too easy for him to control what was going on in the streets in Orleans from OPP?

CANNIZZARO: That decision was made with other law enforcement agencies; I will say that, that we had received certain information from other law enforcement agencies. And there is no question that we did request that he be removed from the parish prison.

G: OK. Do you think it's easy for criminals as powerful as Telly Hankton, allegedly, to be able to continue to call shots from within the walls of the OPP? … I mean, a sheriff's deputy was arrested just last weekend for smuggling three cellphones into OPP.

CANNIZZARO: Again, the only problem is that's an open case. You're asking me to comment on an open case. I understand the allegation. I also understand that I am going to be receiving some information from them very soon on that in the form of a report prepared by the deputies. And I would have to just reserve comment until I've had an opportunity to investigate that, until we've had an opportunity to look into that.

G: I was just going to ask: In general, do you think it's too easy to get contraband into the OPP?

CANNIZZARO: For the most part, for the most part, if contraband is brought into the parish jail — We’ve prosecuted cases for that. We do see sometimes it's cellphones. Most of the time it's narcotics. It's marijuana that we see mostly smuggled into the jail. When we get those cases, we prosecute them. The sheriff brings them to us. I mean, they're diligent in their effort to bring those cases to us. We prosecute them. And for the most part we convict the individuals who are responsible for that. As to how easy or difficult it is, again, I can only talk about the cases that we see. In some cases, obviously some people walk in because they are not searched maybe properly by the police on the streets, and they walk in with the drugs on them. In some cases it may be brought in by someone who's attempting to visit an inmate. But the majority of the cases that we find, the majority, the overwhelming majority of cases that we get from the jail, do not necessarily involve the introduction of contraband into the jail.

G: Do you think there are systemic dysfunctions in the way the OPP is being run?

CANNIZZARO: Hey, ask Sheriff [Marlin] Gusman that. I just don't feel qualified to answer that question. I am not involved with the operations of the Orleans Parish Prison on a daily basis. I have to be honest. I'm just not. And so, I can't really answer that question fairly.

G: Let me ask you a more factual question, then. What does the law on smuggling say? What are the penalties? Is it a felony to smuggle a cellphone into a parish prison?

CANNIZZARO: Yes, yes. Any contraband is considered contraband. Contraband is basically defined as something that's not supposed to be there. And it's a penalty of up to five years.

G: So it could be something perfectly legal like a cellphone on the outside?

CANNIZZARO: That's absolutely right, absolutely right.

G: So if someone, a deputy or a visitor, brings in a cellphone to Orleans Parish Prison, that person is committing a felony?

CANNIZZARO: That is correct, that is correct.

G: And do you prosecute them as felons?

CANNIZZARO: Absolutely, absolutely.

G: OK. Thank you.

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