The New Orleans Family Justice Center (FJC) occupies a second floor of the U.S. Post Office building on Loyola Avenue. It houses 15 agencies, including a 24-hour crisis line, legal clinics and mental health counselors — and it's home base for not only the New Orleans Police Department's (NOPD) domestic violence unit detectives, but also the Orleans Parish district attorney's domestic violence prosecutors.
The center receives 11,000 calls on its crisis line each year and directly serves more than 1,200 people who enter the office. (Executive Director Mary Claire Landry said FJC likely will help nearly 1,500 people in 2013.)
Those departments share a quiet floor with comfortable offices (several decorated with flowers), and that proximity, according to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, helps his office pursue — and keep together — cases against domestic violence offenders. While a network of agencies, including the FJC and the New Orleans Health Department, provide much-needed resources to victims and families, Cannizzaro and the courts are trying to find ways to keep families safe and offenders off the streets.
"The resources are there," Cannizzaro told Gambit. "The prosecutors are there, an investigator is there, a police officer is there — we can do a lot of the work in building the case all under one roof."
Annual snapshots of Louisiana's domestic violence rate reveal it is routinely in the top 10 states for domestic violence homicides. The Violence Policy Center's (VPC) 2011 report showed Louisiana with the ninth-highest rate of domestic homicides that year (from No. 4 in 2010). The report, which used FBI murder statistics, tracked women killed by men in incidents with one victim and one offender.
Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence Director Beth Meeks said the VPC's strict ranking formula leaves out dozens more deaths related to domestic violence, including incidents with multiple victims. In its response to the VPC report, the coalition wrote that Louisiana saw a 16 percent increase in domestic violence homicides from 2010 to 2011.
In New Orleans, NOPD and criminal and civil courts handle thousands of domestic violence-related cases annually. So far this year, NOPD has arrested or has warrants for more than 2,000 people on domestic violence charges.
In 2010, Cannizzaro began moving misdemeanor cases from Orleans Parish Criminal District Court into Municipal Court in an attempt to focus on felony cases. (In 2009, Cannizzaro began trying misdemeanor domestic violence cases in Criminal District Court, where some cases spent as much 18 months on the docket. Those cases returned to Municipal Court under the DA's charge. The city's domestic violence code broadly covers domestic violence, including dating, LGBT and stalking violence, rather than a single offender against the opposite sex, as defined in the state statute.)
That move upset Municipal Court judges, who said the state's backlog of misdemeanor domestic violence cases choked the dockets and exhausted the staff. Cannizzaro says the move has, in many cases, been more efficient, in part because cases no longer languish on long Criminal Court dockets. According to Cannizzaro, "Time is the enemy" in domestic violence cases, where the victim — whose testimony is integral to a conviction — often fears retribution from his or her spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, or losing the parent of his or her children along with financial support. According to Cannizzaro, misdemeanor domestic violence offenses (including simple battery) have a greater and faster chance of coming before a judge in Municipal Court.
"It's freshest in (a victim's) mind — the fear, the pain and all of that is still present," he said. "We've maintained prosecutions of those cases in Municipal Court for the misdemeanor charges ... and we still prosecute the felony cases for the felony charges — the felony batteries, the attempted murders, the strangulations, cases like that — in state court. The big challenge is trying to keep the victims engaged."
Cannizzaro says his office inside the FJC has helped victims stay involved with their cases. "They see that as a place they can go rather than have to come to an office or wait for a phone call from an assistant or an investigator," he said. The DA has five prosecutors and a supervisor inside its domestic violence office, as well as victim and witness counselors and investigators.
"If the victim stays with us, and she wants to cooperate, her word, her testimony, is going to be the best evidence," Cannizzaro said. "She may make a 911 call. Those are recorded. We can play the 911 call. If she is bruised, we can take photos of that. If the officer notices bruises, cutting, bleeding, those photos can be taken if the officer notices that." In cases where witnesses don't want to cooperate or get involved, the DA will proceed with the evidence that remains.
That approach contrasts with a series of domestic violence cases in 2009 and 2010 that preceded Cannizzaro's move to Municipal Courts.
In 2009, Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson sentenced Damian Jordan to a five-year suspended sentence for burglary and battery of his girlfriend. Though Jordan's rap sheet included prior misdemeanor battery charges in Municipal Court, Landrum-Johnson viewed Jordan as a first-time offender in Criminal Court. He spent 21 days in jail — then shot and killed his uncle's girlfriend, her children and her sister.
In 2010, Todd Fussell pleaded guilty to domestic battery, a misdemeanor, for punching his ex-girlfriend. Landrum-Johnson gave him a suspended six-month sentence — but two weeks later, he broke into his ex-girlfriend's home and stabbed her. Landrum-Johnson revoked his probation, which meant he had only the six-month sentence that earlier had been suspended. Also in 2010: Criminal District Court Magistrate Commissioner Marie Bookman dropped Alfred Andrews' domestic battery charge; days later, Andrews killed his wife, her mother and her sister.
Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo criticized the DA's office for the domestic violence misdemeanor caseloads after Marullo acquitted Deante Brumfield of domestic violence battery, despite a videotape showing Brumfield punching his ex-girlfriend on a streetcar.
The DA denies that judges are not made aware of a felony offender's misdemeanor rap sheets. Cannizzaro said it's not uncommon for attorneys in Municipal Court to follow cases to Tulane and Broad, and in most cases, offenders have histories of domestic violence before even approaching a felony charge.
"We may well charge him with the felony offense but let the judge know, make the judge aware of his background prior to the imposition of his sentencing if we're successful in convicting him," Cannizzaro said. "Certainly we're going to let the judge know about the background even at the time of arrest, even if he comes before the magistrate for the bond hearing. We have had occasions, unfortunately, where the judges have not taken the case seriously, they have given them a very low bond, and unfortunately experienced circumstances where the perpetrator will go out and kill the victim."
Though it's uncommon, the DA may reduce charges to "salvage some conviction," knowing that if the defendant gets only a probation, it can be revoked on a second offense, leaving something "hanging over their head."
"If we show there has been some act of violence, then the judge may certainly consider that second charge more seriously than otherwise," Cannizzaro said.
So far this year (through November 2013), 736 people have applied for petitions for protection from abuse — though only 191, about 26 percent, received protective orders from those petitions, according to Patricia Glorioso, a domestic violence coordinator at Civil District Court. There were more than 3,000 protective orders issued in 2012. Tania Tetlow, director of Tulane University's domestic violence clinic, told Gambit that many people seeking those protective orders typically do so without an attorney.
Civil District Court Judge Bernadette D'Souza — who was elected last year as the city's first domestic section judge handling domestic cases exclusively — holds civil protection order hearings in her court daily. D'Souza says the 26 percent figure is misleading, because if the petition "on its face rises to the level of family violence," then the court will grant a temporary restraining order, which grants a 15-day window where the defendant has to be served. If he or she isn't served, the case doesn't go forward."
Prior to her election last year, D'Souza worked for Southeast Legal Services, which assists with filing protective orders from its office within the FJC.
"Normally if you get a civil injunction from a court, if you violate it you may be in contempt of court, but the police aren't going to arrest you," Tetlow said. "With a protective order, it's a crime to violate them. The advantage is you don't have to wait for an abuser to come and beat you up again. If he's outside your door you can call the police and they have the power to arrest him."
D'Souza said within her court, "safety is really paramount." D'Souza often sees abuse in her court involving children, whom she calls the "silent witnesses" in domestic violence cases. "Family violence often tends to create a toxic stress," she said. "They have to deal with it day in and day out."
Despite efforts to put domestic violence offenders behind bars, Cannizzaro said, "This is not about trying to destroy families or break families up. ... We certainly want to provide services to the victims and to women to get them the things they need, to maintain a healthy household for their children.
"It's about trying to get families back together ... in a peaceful and nonviolent setting, which is conducive to raising children, so the violence does not beget violence."
For an earlier report on Louisiana's domestic violence, see "Domestic Help," Gambit, Nov. 19, or visit www.bestofneworleans.com/dv.