NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) — Criminal juries in Orleans Parish will not be reassembled until March, Chief Judge Robin Pittman announced in response to a legal challenge to jury screening procedures for convicted felons.
The Criminal District Court released a letter Pittman wrote to an attorney for Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), an advocacy group for formerly incarcerated individuals. A defendant in attempted murder in New Orleans last week challenged whether the court wrongly excluded convicted felons from jury pools, despite recent changes in state law.
Emily Posner, VOTE’s chief legal officer, earlier this month questioned the court’s jury trials.
“In response to your letters of January 12 and 20,” Pittman wrote to Posner, “the jury hearings for the Orleans County Criminal Court have been postponed for the remainder of January 2023 and February 2023.”
Act 121 — a law that went into effect in August 2021 — restored jury eligibility to convicted felons if they had not had parole or parole for at least five years and were not currently under house arrest or a criminal charge. The legal challenge alleges that the Orleans Criminal Court continues to disqualify convicted felons eligible under the new law from jury duty for outdated and incorrect subpoenas and jury reviews.
“That has to be true,” District Attorney Jason Williams said. “We hope this will be less than a month because we have several cases in court.”
“The jury questionnaire hasn’t been changed to reflect the new law,” said Fox 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti. “Now it’s going to be changed during Carnival month when there can’t be many trials anyway, and they’ll come back in March, to try again by jury. Whether or not it will affect previous cases since the law came into force is in question, I’m sure.”
Williams says the delay comes at a time when he felt his office was becoming more important when it came to getting criminals off the streets.
“We put a lot of work into getting the system out of the backlog,” Williams said.
Orleans Justice Center officials say they don’t expect the delay to have a major impact on prison occupancy, which currently stands at 973. Some judges may consider supervised release of inmates if prison capacity becomes an issue.
Some attorneys say that despite New Orleans’ criminal challenges, the fact that grand juries will be suspended for the next five weeks isn’t a big deal, largely due to Mardi Gras.
“The police are on parade duty and they work 24 hour shifts and it’s common for February actually not to be busy. When people ask me, “What month should I volunteer for jury duty?” I’m telling them December and February because there are fewer court cases,” Defense Attorney Jeffrey Smith said.
“While we respect the criminal district court’s decision, our primary concern is always with the victims and witnesses we represent — many of whom have worked with our team in preparing for the trials this month and next,” Williams’ office said in a statement . “Our office will continue to do everything possible to accommodate families with all due speed during this temporary break.”
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