Renata Singleton was the victim in a criminal case and served five days in jail. That’s right, the victim. And Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is to blame.
In the fall of 2014, Renata Singleton and her boyfriend got into an argument at her apartment. He took her phone and slammed it on her porch. She wanted him out of the house, so she called the police, and they took him away. A criminal case was brought against her boyfriend. After Singleton told the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office that she had resolved things with him and wanted to move on, Cannizzaro’s office didn’t listen. Instead, agents left two “subpoenas” at her door demanding she appear at its office for a private interview.
Only they were not subpoenas at all.
Instead the documents — created by Cannizzaro’s office — were fake. Their purpose? To coerce victims and witnesses like her to talk to prosecutors in secret, off-the-record meetings, often by threatening a fine and imprisonment for failure to comply. Cannizzaro’s fake subpoenas have taken many forms but some bear the Office’s seal and in all respects look like valid subpoenas.
When Singleton did not appear as instructed by the fraudulent documents and other valid subpoenas that were never properly served, Cannizzaro’s office went to court and asked a judge that she be jailed as a material witness. It did not tell the court that the subpoenas were illegal. It obtained an arrest warrant and a $100,000 bond against her. By comparison, the judge ultimately gave her boyfriend a $3,500 bond.
When police officers came to her apartment to arrest her, she told them she would go to Cannizzaro’s office the next morning. There she informed the prosecutors that she did not want to pursue the case. She told them that she was uncomfortable with how the district attorney’s office had treated her. They then had her arrested on the spot.
Singleton had never been arrested in her life. But because of Cannizzaro’s illegal policies, she spent five traumatic days in the Orleans Parish Prison. Singleton was housed alongside people charged with serious crimes. She was terrified and worried about her children and about losing her job. Her boyfriend, on the other hand, avoided a jail sentence altogether by pleading guilty. He received probation for two simple misdemeanors. Singleton’s testimony was never needed against him.
Sadly, Singleton’s ordeal is not an isolated incident. She is but one of many victims of Cannizzaro’s longstanding policy of using illegal means to coerce and intimidate people to talk to prosecutors in secret meetings. Louisiana law is clear on this point. Unless served with a proper subpoena that has been approved by a judge, no witness is obligated to meet with anyone from the district attorney’s office outside of court. And even then, she may decline to talk.
And the rot runs even deeper.
Cannizzaro’s office also retaliates against witnesses when the information they share does not support the prosecution’s case. Our client Marc Mitchell was shot multiple times in an attempted murder. Prosecutors in Cannizzaro’s office pressured Mitchell to testify that another man had given an order to the man who shot him — despite the fact that Mitchell did not know if the man gave such an order. When Mitchell decided to stop interacting with Cannizzaro’s office because of how they were treating him, they had him arrested on a material witness warrant based on false information.
After obtaining material witness warrants, Cannizarro’s prosecutors have also left victims and witnesses languishing in jail until the office decides it needs them again for its cases. A rape victim waited for 12 days before she was brought to court from jail. A victim of child sex trafficking spent 89 days in jail before she went before a judge.
Instead of protecting communities, Cannizzaro has destroyed their trust and hurt the very people his office is supposed to protect. In a very real sense, he victimizes crime victims a second time.
His office’s coercive and intimidating methods also disproportionately target the Black community. In fact, every person we’ve identified so far as jailed by his office on the basis of false information, including fraudulent subpoenas, is Black.
Reducing mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system will only occur once prosecutors — the most powerful players in the system — are held accountable. District attorneys like Cannizzaro who act with unchecked power rarely expect to be held accountable.
That has to change.
With Civil Rights Corps, we filed suit in federal court in New Orleans on behalf of people with experiences that echo Renata Singleton’s as well as on behalf of SilenceIsViolence, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that supports crime victims and witnesses for the violations of their constitutional rights. By asking the court to stop these practices and asking for civil damages, we’re looking to hold District Attorney Cannizzaro and his office accountable for its unlawful actions against crime victims and witnesses.
Earlier this year, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice announced a new multi-year initiative to make sure that prosecutors who break the law are held accountable. This lawsuit is the first of many to come across the country as we work toward much-needed prosecutorial reform that begins today in Orleans Parish.