James Gill: Curious case of least curious lawyers

Lawyers who lack curiosity are generally in the wrong line of work, but they were out in force at New Orleans Criminal Court last week.

When City Councilman Jason Williams took the stand as a witness, prosecutors politely declined to grill him about the content of several text messages he exchanged with murder suspect Keith Kisack.

The testimony that Williams was required to give revealed him as probably the least inquisitive member of the local bar.

Those text messages date from 2011 when Williams was defense attorney for Kisack. Williams might have wondered how come communication was so easy, given that KK, as he called his client, was in the slammer, where cellphones are verboten. But he apparently never did.

A go-between could conceivably have been at the other end, but it did not require a suspicious mind to entertain the possibility that Kisack had a contraband phone. It did not occur to Williams, however. “I didn’t even try to figure it out. I can’t tell you I try to root out who typed a message or where the phone was,” he testified.

In fact, deputies found the phone in a sock hidden in a crack of a jailhouse wall. Messages stored on it included a Thanksgiving greeting from Williams, who allowed, “We gonna try to make this your last one in that place.”

That didn’t work. Kisack has been in jail since 2009 awaiting his murder trial. Whatever happens when it finally takes place, Kisack is unlikely to get out of jail for many years, now that he has been convicted, with Williams’s help, of illegal cellphone possession.

Although the maximum sentence for that is only five years, Kisack has a rap sheet as long as your arm. It includes convictions for aggravated battery, robbery and kidnapping, so District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is fixing to multiple-bill him into a serious stretch.

Williams aspired to be DA himself in 2008 but failed to make the runoff election. He was elected to the council this year and now sits on the committee that reviews the DA’s budget. No doubt, the compliment was sincere when Cannizzaro said at a recent committee hearing that he’d rather see Williams there than on the opposite side in a criminal trial, but there are pragmatic reasons for maintaining cordial relations.

Williams cannot have relished appearing in court to testify against his old client, but Cannizzaro’s boys were not about to give their own witness a hard time and were content to have him confirm he was Kisack’s correspondent. He assured them he would not have responded had he known the texts came from the jailhouse.

It is, nevertheless, hard to believe that Williams had no inkling what was going on or did not know how eager inmates can be to get their hands on cellphones in order to intimidate witnesses or arrange reprisals.

Even had he known for sure that Kisack had the phone, however, Williams was not required to report it. What would be misprision of a felony for a layman would be a breach of professional ethics for a lawyer.

A lawyer cannot assist a client in the commission of a crime, but there was no suggestion that happened here. Williams couldn’t have been charged with an offense just for knowing the phone’s whereabouts. How KK got the phone, or who paid the bill, was not revealed in court.

Kisack’s attorneys tried to have Williams’ testimony disallowed as a breach of attorney-client privilege, but his texts did not contain legal advice and the state Supreme Court gave the go-ahead.

That cooked Kisack’s goose, and his attorneys were reduced to claiming that he was being victimized because Sheriff Marlin Gusman had been embarrassed by videos discovered in his safe that showed other jailbirds drinking, gambling, toting guns and even making an evening excursion to Bourbon Street.

The holes in that theory could hardly have been more obvious. Cannizzaro filed charges against the inmates featured on the videos, and most already have pleaded guilty. And the videos did not come to light until well over a year after Kisack had been booked on the cellphone rap.

The jury saw no reason to pussyfoot around. It took less than 15 minutes to find Kisack guilty.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.