How a Case of ‘Restorative Justice’ Was Actually Just Business As Usual For the New Orleans DA
It was a courtroom scene that seemed to tell an epic tale of redemption — and show the New Orleans DA’s office in a rare embrace of restorative justice. On December 1, 2017, 23-year-old Jeremy Burse stood before the New Orleans criminal court judge who, less than two years earlier, had sentenced him to life without parole for shooting a friend during a botched robbery when he was just 15 years old.
But on that December day, the very same judge, encouraged by the same assistant district attorney who had prosecuted the case, erased the living death sentence of life without parole and resentenced Burse to 25 years in prison, a deal agreed to by the prosecution and defense. That morning, Burse met, apologized to and hugged the mother of the victim.
“This case involved two boys who were very close friends and made very stupid mistakes,” Laura Rodrigue, head of the restorative justice unit for the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office (and daughter of the District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro), stated in a news release. “Both families suffered devastating losses through the actions of both the defendant and the victim.”
The case was celebrated as New Orleans’s first mediated revision of a juvenile life without parole sentence, but what looked like a moment of reform was far from it. What Rodrigue — and the Times-Picayune article describing the scene — omitted is the prosecutorial misconduct alleged by Burse’s attorneys that sent him to prison in the first place.
As the assistant district attorney prosecuting the young man four years earlier,Rodrigue allegedly threatened the state’s key witness with prosecution and offered him a new attorney for his pending charges in exchange for his testimony against Burse. As he prepared to appeal the conviction, Burse’s attorney Christopher Murell sent an investigator to interview Stewart, who admitted to the threat and the offer. Murell then filed a motion for a new trial. However, not wanting the case to drag on without resolution, Burse agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a 25-year prison sentence.
The New Orleans District Attorney’s office has a decades-long history of misconduct. In 1995, the United States Supreme Court rebuked then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. for “blatant and repeated violations” of the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to divulge information such as deals made with state witnesses and information that could discredit their witnesses. Justice David Souter even went so far as to write that the court had “descend[ed] to a gladiatorial level unmitigated by any prosecutorial obligation for the sake of the truth.”
Louisiana courts have overturned at least 36 convictions out of the Orleans DA’s office for hiding evidence that might impede a conviction. In one case, Robert Jones spent over 23 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of a string of violent crimes, including murder, rape and kidnapping, after prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence. (Now free, Jones is suing the district attorney’s office.)
In another case, John Thompson was weeks away from execution after spending 18 years behind bars when his attorneys found exonerating evidence, which prosecutors had known about but failed to turn over in court. He sued and a jury awarded him $14 million in damages. But the Orleans Parish district attorney appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2011, ruled that the DA’s office could not be held responsible for the actions of a lone prosecutor.
The Orleans DA’s office, led by Leon Cannizzaro since 2009, still doesn’t play fair. That’s what the attorneys for Jeremy Burse argued in their motion for a new trial. The prosecution’s key witness, Ricky Stewart, admitted to lying under oath when he testified against Burse in June 2013. His testimony sent Burse to prison for life without parole.
In September 2010, police responded to a 911 call about a shooting in New Orleans East. They found a security guard in the parking lot of an apartment complex, shot but still alive, following a robbery attempt. They also found the dead body of 16-year-old Anthony Davis, who was later determined to be one of the two teenagers attempting to rob the guard. Davis had died of a gunshot wound to the chest after a bullet ricocheted off another object.
Under questioning two days later by the New Orleans Police Department, Ricky Stewart, then age 16, told officers that he, Burse, Davis and another young man had been driving around in a stolen car. Stewart said he and the other teen had already dropped Burse and Davis off at the apartment complex and were driving away when the shooting occurred. Stewart told police that he heard gunshots, then saw Burse, with a gun in hand, who told him that he had made a “mistake” and shot a security guard. Burse then ran off. Based solely on Stewart’s account, the police arrested Burse, then 15, for attempted murder and attempted armed robbery. The Orleans DA later added a second-degree murder charge.
In June 2013, Burse, then age 18, finally had his day in court. By then, he had spent three years at Orleans Parish Prison, the notorious local jail that is under a federal consent decree. The key witness was Stewart, who was facing 12 years in prison for a burglary charge. The jury found Burse guilty of second-degree felony murder, which in Louisiana means that a person was killed during the commission of a crime.
By then, the Supreme Court had issued its opinion in Miller v. Alabama, which established that mandatory life without parole for children under age 18 violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling did not, however, prohibit states from ever sentencing a child to life without parole; a judge could still do so after an investigation and a hearing. After the required Miller hearing, the judge nonetheless sentenced Burse to life without parole. Burse was sent to Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, where he remains today.
The next year, however, Stewart admitted that he lied on the stand. “I did not want to testify in Jeremy’s trial,” Stewart wrote in a 2017 affidavit. He stated that he had not actually seen the shooting, but Assistant District Attorney Laura Rodrigue, who had prosecuted Burse, “said that they would charge me for having a role in Anthony’s murder if I did not testify. I was very scared. I did not want to testify, but I had to or else I would go to jail. It was more important to me that I not go to jail than telling the truth about the night Anthony was killed.”
Not only did Rodrigue allegedly use the stick of a murder charge, but she also dangled a carrot before her witness. Stewart had complained about the public defender appointed to represent him in his burglary case. (“I did not think my public defender was fighting for me,” Stewart stated in his affidavit. “I wanted to hire a private lawyer to get better representation. I could not afford a private lawyer.”) So, Rodrigue allegedly offered Stewart a private lawyer if he testified against Burse.
“The day before I testified in Jeremy’s murder case for the prosecution, Robert Jenkins was appointed to represent me on my burglary case,” Stewart wrote in his affidavit. “I know Robert Jenkins to be a big name, private lawyer in New Orleans. Robert Jenkins showed up to court to enroll as my lawyer.” Jenkins is a prominent private attorney whose clients include former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. “It was clear that the two lady DAs got Robert Jenkins appointed to my case so that I would testify for them the next day,” Stewart wrote in his affidavit. But, Stewart continued, Rodrigue also cautioned him not to talk about her role in securing him a better attorney. That, of course, violates the Brady Rule.
This is not the only time that Cannizzaro’s office has been accused of violating the Brady rule. In 2010, Cannizzaro prosecuted Jamaal Tucker for second-degree murder based on the testimony of a jailhouse informant named Morris Greene. In return, Cannizzaro called in a favor from the prosecutor in Lafayette Parish. Greene got time served; Tucker got life in prison. Faced with a subpoena to testify about his dealings with Greene, Cannizzaro tossed the conviction. Tucker later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and will serve at least 25 years in prison.
In October 2017, the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps filed a federal lawsuit against Cannizzaro and ten of his prosecutors, including Rodrigue, for coercing reluctant witnesses with arrest warrants and fake subpoenas. The suit alleges that, for years, Cannizzaro’s prosecutors have attempted to intimidate reluctant witnesses into private interviews outside of court. If they refused, prosecutors “routinely obtain[ed] arrest warrants to put crime victims and witnesses in jail.” According to the lawsuit, over the past five years, Cannizzaro’s office sought at least 150 material witness warrants, jailing at least one rape victim and one victim of child sex-trafficking.
Burse attorney Christopher Murell’s 2017 motion for a new trial was based on similar allegations of prosecutorial misconduct by the Orleans DA’s office. He also reached out to prosecutors to begin plea negotiations. “It was a risk analysis,” he explained. “We had lost at trial before. We could have won at a retrial, but it’s not guaranteed that we would.”
Murell said he had no idea that the case would be part of the DA’s restorative justice program, which Rodrigue heads. Though Burse and Davis’s mother met and spoke in the judge’s chamber before Burse’s court appearance, Murell had not been informed that the meeting was part of a mediation, which generally involves an open-ended conversation rather than a pre-ordained plea deal. “I was under the impression that this [meeting] was in furtherance of getting the plea [of 25 years rather than life without parole],” Murrell said. “Until the very end, I did not know that the district attorney had a restorative justice program.”
Still, reflects Murell, “it’s a better outcome than being sentenced to life without parole. Jeremy will be released while he’s still relatively young and be able to be with his own family and build his own family and have a life. But living in a state where something you did when you were 15 years old can result in a 25-year prison sentence, I would not say is justice.”