A friend forwarded me an email of the first Quarterly Report from Court Watch (full email after the jump since it doesn’t appear to be on their website yet). This is the most promising thing I’ve heard in a while. Seems they are training citizen volunteers to sit in on court proceedings and follow them end to end. They’ve just gotten started (June 2007) so they’re a little green but the idea is genius. This is exactly what needed to be done and I’m a little ashamed I wasn’t smart enough to think of it. This is going to tell a story that I’m not sure anyone really sees. I hope they can maintain their objectivity and continue to put out good information as this will allow people to decide for themselves what in the system is broken and fix it with their vote where possible.
A big thank you to the organization and its volunteers. If anyone out there has time to give, this would be, if nothing else, a very interesting project to be involved with.
June – September 2007
Since its inception in June 2007, Court Watch NOLA’s staff of more than 30 volunteers has monitored in excess of 300 cases. Court Watch NOLA is committed to promoting transparency within the criminal court system in Orleans Parish. The primary challenges observed by court watchers are an overwhelmed District Attorney’s Office confronted by a judiciary frustrated by slow-moving criminal case dockets.
Volunteer for Court Watch NOLA.
What is CourtWatch NOLA?
Court Watch NOLA was created by the NEW ORLEANS CRIME COALITION, a coalition of civic leaders and community groups dedicated to improving the New Orleans Criminal Justice system. The core objective of Court Watch NOLA is to create accountability and transparency to proceedings within Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Court Watch NOLA has one full-time coordinator who identifies cases to follow, schedules the court sessions to be attended, and recruits and trains volunteers to staff the program. Court watchers first undergo a training session where the process of adjudication and the role of each of the participants is discussed. Court watchers are then given a tour of the courthouse. They are provided with a data sheet to be filled out for each of the cases they are assigned. Those data sheets are then reviewed and the information is disseminated to the public.
How Are Cases Selected?
The inventory for Court Watch NOLA is currently created using one of four criteria:
* Media Attention – Cases which are being followed in the press clearly are of interest to members of the community. As such, Court Watch NOLA endeavors to track high profile cases. For example, Court Watchers observed the demise of the case against Michael Anderson (Central City quintuple murder), as well as the Tyrone Wells case (aborted attempt to bring the first capital murder case since Katrina to trial).
* Violent Offender Unit – Cases which are being handled by the Violent Offenders Unit of the District Attorney’s office are (at this point) exclusively prosecutions for first and second degree murder. Court Watch NOLA is committed to following these cases until their conclusion.
* Ten Oldest Cases – Court Watch NOLA is currently tracking the ten oldest first and second class felony cases pending in each section of court. Court Watch NOLA will issue a report on the progress of these cases after a three-month study is completed.
* Community Involvement – Court Watch NOLA has a website and is actively recruiting volunteers through media exposure. As such, members of the community make suggestions to follow particular cases for a variety of reasons. Court Watch NOLA is committed to responding to as many requests for Court Watchers as are manageable.
First Quarter Results
In our first quarter, we watched approximately 300 cases.
A review of data collected by court watchers reveals that 68% of the time court watchers were in court the case they were watching was continued. A continuance means that no action was taken whatsoever in the case. Any other activity regarding the case, no matter how small, was not counted as a continuance. Of the 68% noted above, the State was responsible for 48% of the continuances, the defense was responsible for 35% and either the court or both the State and defense (joint motion) were responsible for the rest.
Court watchers only observed 4 cases that went to trial, (one twice due to a hung jury the first time).
The repeated continuances of critical cases awaiting resolution create significant delays in criminal proceedings and result in a back-log which further congests the system. A primary reason given for the continuances is the ongoing turnover and attrition within the District Attorney’s office. One Judge, for example, recently noted in response to the State’s request for a continuance of trial in a first degree murder case pending since before Hurricane Katrina: “I’m not telling you all how to do your business. But I do need to assert my authority as a judge in these matters when murder after murder I have are continued because the Assistant District Attorneys are changing…. I feel like it’s just a broken record, over and over, and at some point these defendants are going to start getting released…. I can’t even get these cases past the discovery stage.”
Our review of the data reveals that the average number of days from one court setting to the next was 32 days. (This average is a compilation across all sections of court). Delays in scheduling the next court date add to the size of a court’s docket. The length of the criminal justice system process impacts a court’s ability to handle the continuous influx of new cases. As each older case sits on a court’s docket for another month with no action taken, the chances increase that witnesses will become unavailable or the Assistant District Attorney who originally became involved with the case will be reassigned or leave.
Our court watchers were asked to answer a number of questions regarding the performance of the judiciary, prosecutors, defense attorneys, sheriff’s deputies and NOPD witnesses.
Judiciary – Court watchers responded that judges were respectful to the prosecution 89% of the time and respectful to the defense 91% of the time. In the court watchers’ opinion, the judiciary as a whole acted professionally 85% of the time and explained the reasons for their decisions 84% of the time. Judges scored the lowest (79%) when court watchers were asked whether or not judges maintained a good flow to court proceedings. Such comments as “I was amazed at how slowly things proceeded” were noted.
State – Court Watchers responded that prosecutors were knowledgeable of their cases 84% of the time, but were prepared for court proceedings only 70% of the time. This lack of preparation is consistent with many comments, such as, “Judge was mad at prosecutors for not having evidence…Judge threatening State with contempt…Judge irritated with State…The judge reprimanded the prosecution for inadequate preparation and not paying enough attention to her-the lead prosecutor was on the phone while the judge was asking questions about details of the case.” However, the court watchers responded that 96% of the time, prosecutors acted professionally and despite their preparation or lack thereof, seemed to have a good working relationship with the judge 86% of the time.
Defense – Court watchers responded that defense attorneys as a whole, both private and indigent defenders, were knowledgeable of their cases 91% of the time, and were well prepared for court proceedings 82% of the time. This was despite such comments as, “defendant has had several different defense attorneys assigned…” The defense bar acted professionally 82% of the time.
NOPD Witnesses – Due to the high number of continuances witnessed by the court watchers, the number of responses to questions regarding NOPD officers as witnesses is markedly lower. 100% of the time court watchers watched an NOPD officer testify the officer acted professionally, and 85% of the time the officer was able to recall details of the case.
Criminal Sheriff’s Deputies – Sheriff’s deputies maintained order in the courtroom 88% of the time and acted professionally 80% of the time.
The number of continuances shows a disturbing trend in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Judges, as a matter of course, are hesitant to force ADA’s to go to trial when they are unprepared. However, it is clear, based on the compilation of the court watchers’ comments, that the patience of the judiciary is wearing dangerously thin. At the same time, defendants’ right to speedy trial is being compromised. Threats of holding prosecutors in contempt for lack of preparedness is becoming commonplace in practically every section of court. The presence of the court watchers in court, their comments and their insight, are proving to be invaluable in getting the true pulse of the atmosphere in criminal court.
Contact: Karen K. Herman, Esq. (504) 994-2694
Court Watch NOLA would like to thank the Greater New Orleans Business Council, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, Common Good, Metropolitan Crime Commission, the sheriff’s deputies, criminal court personnel and court clerks who look out for the volunteers and, of course, the volunteers themselves for their generous contribution of time and effort to this noble endeavor.