David Soublet, Sr. Think504.com
Ever attended or tuned in to the New Orleans Proposed Budget Hearings?
It’s when all city agencies and departments present their accomplishments for the current year, and the dollars requested for next year. It goes on for hours and hours over many days. Drab? Boring? Certainly not the most interesting way to spend your time unless you don’t have anything better to do. Every now and then, though, citizens can really learn important things about problems facing local government.
Tuesday November 7th was such a day when District Attorney Jason Williams addressed the council. First, he briefly covered the obligatory budget/staffing items. But most of his presentation addressed a huge problem his office faces. How to best protect domestic violence (DV) victims. Specifically, how quickly a person arrested for DV can be bailed out and returned to the streets.
District Attorney Schools City Council
In 2014, a De Soto Parish woman named Gwen Salley and her young daughter were held at gunpoint by her estranged husband. He was arrested and held briefly in jail. But he quickly made bail bond and was released. Hours later he kidnapped Gwen at their daughter’s day care center and murdered her in a secluded area near Shreveport. Legislative changes led to the passage of Gwen’s Law in 2017. A key factor in Gwen’s Law is the duty of the court to decide within 5 days whether to schedule a contradictory bail hearing. This hearing can make it more difficult, and sometimes prevent altogether, the release of the accused.
For over 45 minutes, Jason Williams deftly laid out his case as if in a court of law. He accused magistrate court judges, one in particular, of rushing to schedule Gwen’s Law hearings, sometimes in less than 48 hours. Williams argued that in many cases it takes more than 2 days to prepare arguments for keeping the accused in jail. He and Andre Gaudin, Chief of Screening, reminded us of what occurs sometimes. When violators, who were previously arrested for similar violence against their spouses or lovers, are prematurely allowed to bail out bad things often happen. The two most recent tragic cases are those of Asia Davis and the fiery deaths of three young children on America Street this past October.
District Attorney Schools City Council
DA Williams also railed against the format of these Gwen’s Law hearings. Only days after an incident of DV, the victim is expected to appear in court and testify against their spouses/lovers. And they are normally seated only a few feet apart from each other. He suggests that this format is intimidating for victims, normally women. It sometimes influences them to drop charges in fear of retaliation. If that’s what goes on less than 5 days after a DV incident, then of course victims experience another round of emotional trauma.
Williams recommends the submission and consideration of police video responding to the DV call as a substitute for live victim testimony at contradictory bail hearings, provided such evidence exists. He also suggests that electronic monitoring devices (i.e., ankle bracelets) be imposed by judges as a crime deterrent.
Williams’ persuasiveness and brilliance as a courtroom lawyer was on full display. Councilman and fellow Attorney Freddie King provided an alternative perspective. King is certainly sympathetic to alleged victims. But he brought up the issue of women falsely accusing men as revenge for failed relationships, or more maliciously to cause them to lose their jobs. Williams explained that police, witness, and other evidence are screened closely for that possibility. The DA thwarted King in no uncertain terms. He emphatically countered “The default in DV cases cannot be that the victim is lying.”
Who would have thought that such an important criminal law concept like Gwen’s Law hearings would be debated in detail during proposed budget hearings? I was about to tune out that day before this important crime fighting, sometimes life saving measures hit the agenda. The DA hit a grand slam this time. And I’m sure his 2024 budget requests are likely to be firmly approved.