N.O.’s expanded use of racketeering law draws praise, skepticism

Thick security greeted 18 criminal defendants on Friday as they sat in a New Orleans jury box while a judge read off a massive indictment against them.

The first charge alone took 20 minutes as Criminal Court Chief Judge Camille Buras reeled off dozens of underlying crimes.

Donning orange jail scrubs, many of the defendants looked bored. One nodded off, forced awake when it was time to plead not guilty.

A month after they were indicted for an array of murders, shootings and drug crimes — including the 2011 slaying of toddler Keira Holmes in the courtyard of the former B.W. Cooper housing project — the men are caught up in one of a handful of massive New Orleans racketeering cases that plod along under their sheer size.

Only six of the defendants in the case against the alleged ”3-N-G” members have found lawyers. The rest must wait until Buras makes the rounds of private defense attorneys to drum up free help for them.

Ten of them already had active cases with the public defender, so that office can’t represent anyone associated with one of the most sprawling criminal cases that has ever been brought in Orleans Parish. In a similarly broad case involving alleged members of the “110’ers” gang, the public defender’s office represents five of the 15 defendants in other cases, and 15 prosecution witnesses, leaving Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier to scramble as well.

Such are the challenges these days in the criminal courthouse as Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro presses a strategy to indict violent neighborhood groups en masse under a 30-year-old state statute that until lately has rarely been exploited.

In a gambit normally reserved for the feds, Cannizzaro’s office began two years ago to take advantage of the little-known state racketeering law.

The prosecution of the “3-N-G” group, named for their stomping grounds at Third and Galvez streets, marks the fifth time that his office has pursued charges under the statute. Cannizzaro touts it as a way to weave a more complete tale to judges and juries about the activities of people who might otherwise appear as isolated criminals. Under the racketeering statute, prosecutors can present evidence of a pattern of bad conduct that otherwise would be excluded from trial.

At a City Council budget hearing last week, Councilwoman Susan Guidry praised the initiative for the “encouraging effect it has had for the public to see these indictments come down.”

Still, defense attorneys, judges and some legal scholars say the strategy comes with a cost, taxing a parish criminal justice system that is ill-equipped to handle the load.

Even Cannizzaro declined to speculate on whether the added threat to neighborhood crime groups has contributed to a short-term reduction in New Orleans murders, seen over the first half of this year. One prominent defense lawyer doubts it.

“They’re not paying attention,” Jason Williams said. “They’re not even watching the news.”

Though the strategy can make a big splash when police sweep through a neighborhood to nab whole groups of locals, Cannizzaro admits the early returns have been modest.

The last of 11 defendants, Darnell Ellis, pleaded guilty last week in the first racketeering case that Cannizzaro’s office pursued, against alleged members of the “D-Block” gang, based around Dumaine and Broad streets in Mid-City. All 11 pleaded guilty, but several received sentences that overlapped with others, and some received three years or less. None of the defendants received more than 15 years in prison, despite allegations that members of the group were involved in several shootings and robberies.

Cannizzaro admitted that his office is learning as it goes. One drawback of the racketeering statute, he said, is that prosecutors can’t pursue higher sentences under the state’s habitual offender law for any crimes that are wrapped into the racketeering indictment.

That happened in the D-Block case, the only racketeering case among the five filed to date that did not include murder allegations.

The racketeering statute carries sentences from zero to 50 years — up to 100 under the habitual offender law — but Cannizzaro’s office didn’t approach the maximums in its first foray with D-Block.

“I’ll admit, hey, were we as effective with D-Block as we are going to be with like, the 110ers? No. We were learning about the statute as we proceeded,” Cannizzaro said.

“It’s not just about sentencing. It’s about showing the community, showing the criminal element that, look, this shop is open and we are going to continue to do business against the violent offenders,” he added. “We don’t need to rely on the federal government to come here and take care of the problems that take place on the streets of the city of New Orleans.”

The state statute, modeled on the federal law written to target organized crime, allows prosecutors to introduce evidence in a raft of crimes against a suspect when a jury or judge might otherwise just see, for instance, a single drug conviction.

One key effect: Less-culpable defendants often squawk about their more dangerous cohorts in the group when they fear a half-century in prison.

Along with D-Block, 3-N-G and the 110’ers, members of which allegedly were involved in the fatal shooting of 5-year-old Briana Allen last year at a birthday party in Central City, Cannizzaro’s office has brought charges against two other gangs.

Last year, his office indicted 10 members of a group known as the Cut Throat City Snake Gang, which operated an alleged drug operation in the 9th Ward that members celebrated in videos on YouTube.

Also indicted were alleged members of a group known as the “Backa 7 Town” gang. Those cases also remain pending.

Eusi Phillips, a former Orleans prosecutor and now a defense attorney who represents alleged 3-N-G member Tyrone “T-Bone” Knockum — who is accused of killing Keira Holmes — said it’s clear the racketeering statute is designed to bolster weak cases and reap guilty pleas.

Along with the 18 alleged 3-N-G members who appeared in court Friday, two defendants in the case remain at large.

“There’s no way in the world this case is going to proceed with 20 defendants. The system can just not handle a 20-defendant trial,” Phillips said. “I think it’s just a big show by the district attorney. A lot of these people have had charges in separate sections of court. It turns a case that was probably weak into something stronger. It’s more of a burden on the system than anything.”

Loyola Law School professor Dane Ciolino said such cases should be reserved for federal court, where the court pays for conflict attorneys, rather than relying, as in the recent state cases, on private attorneys to work for free.

“It’s more an exercise in public grandstanding perhaps,” he said. “In theory you can open up perhaps more evidentiary pathways, but you can do that with a plain old conspiracy indictment.

“The courthouse at Tulane and Broad isn’t institutionally equipped for these kind of cases.”

The criminal court judges, meanwhile, are highlighting the complexity of the racketeering cases as they seek more funding from the city, and to stave off an effort to shrink the number of judges in the building. Chief public defender Derwyn Bunton has said he simply can’t afford to pay outside lawyers to handle the cases, and Buras, the chief judge, said she’s worried about repeatedly calling on private attorneys to take them gratis.

“Asking someone to pick up a third-class felony is one thing. Asking someone to pick up a pro bono multiple-count, multiple defendant racketeering charge which involves underlying offenses ranging from narcotics trafficking to murder, is another. It’s onerous,” Buras said. “I just don’t know how big a depth chart we have.”

Cannizzaro shows little sympathy for the strain on the court system.

“I’m gong to use every tool in my toolbox to convict the bad guy. If I cannot convict him of the murder, or if I’m not able to charge him with the murder but I believe he’s responsible for violent acts, we’re going to dig down,” Cannizzaro said. “We’re going to look to everything he’s been involved with. If I can keep him off the street for 15 minutes for disturbing the peace or trespassing, I’m going to do it.”

He credits a better working relationship with the feds for the growing number of state racketeering cases.

Federal prosecutors for years have brought racketeering cases against local gangs, most recently in the sprawling indictment against notorious convicted killer Telly Hankton and his alleged band of relatives, hit men and cohorts.

Last week, several members of the Harvey-based “Murder Squad” pleaded guilty in federal court to a variety of charges, including murder. The feds recently also secured pleas against members of an alleged Hollygrove gang accused in a variety of violent crimes. The Hankton case went federal in part because it started with an FBI investigation, but also because the feds are better equipped to protect witnesses.

The decision on which cases go where lies largely with the feds. But confidence is beginning to grow that Cannizzaro’s office can handle more, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Maurice Landrieu, a former Orleans Parish prosecutor and brother of Mayor Mitch Landrieu who heads up the feds’ gang unit. He said use of the racketeering statute in state court only makes sense.

“Crime is always committed in a conspiracy, especially in the retaliatory type murders. Everything’s driven by the drug trade and guns and the back-and-forth and disrespect between different groups and neighborhoods,” Maurice Landrieu said. “We want people to start to respect the state system as much as they respect the federal system.”

In a drug case, for instance, “if you look at not just this guy but his 10 friends, and we can show his 10 friends arrested 50 times, and no judge has seen this whole puzzle, it gets harder and harder for defendants to defend themselves. And it gets harder for judges to justify or even be willing to give these guys a break.”