Orleans Parish criminal court suspends jury service until March amid challenge to summons procedures

Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 7:23 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 24, 2023 at 5:40 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Criminal court juries in Orleans Parish will not be empaneled again until March, Chief Judge Robin Pittman announced in response to a legal challenge regarding juror screening procedures for convicted felons.

The Criminal District Court released a letter Pittman wrote to an attorney with Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), an advocacy group for formerly incarcerated individuals. A New Orleans attempted murder defendant last week challenged whether the court was improperly excluding convicted felons from jury pools despite recent changes in state law.

Emily Posner, general counsel for VOTE, questioned the court’s jury procedures earlier this month.

“In response to your letters dated Jan. 12 and Jan. 20,” Pittman wrote to Posner, “jury venires for the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have been deferred for the remainder of January 2023 and February 2023.”

Act 121 -- a law that took effect in August 2021 -- restored jury eligibility to convicted felons if they had been off probation or parole for at least five years and were not currently under house arrest or criminal indictment. The legal challenge asserts that the Orleans criminal court has continued to exclude convicted felons who would qualify under the new law from jury service because of outdated and incorrect jury summonses and screening.

“That has to be correct,” District Attorney Jason Williams said. “We are hoping that will be less than a month because we have several cases set for trial.”

“The jury questionnaire was not changed to reflect the new law‚” Fox 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti said. “Now, it will be changed during the month of Mardi Gras when there can’t be many trials anyway, and they’ll come back in March to do jury trials again. Whether or not it’s going to impact earlier cases since the law went into effect is something that will be challenged, I’m sure.”

Williams says the delay is happening at a time when he felt his office was gaining traction in getting criminals off the street.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work to dig the system out of the backlog,” said Williams.

Officials with the Orleans Justice Center say they don’t expect the delay to have much of an impact on jail population, which currently stands at 973. Some judges may consider monitored release of inmates if jail capacity does become an issue.

Some attorneys say in spite of New Orleans’ crime challenges, the fact that jury trials will be stopped for the next five weeks is no big deal largely due to Mardi Gras.

“Police are doing parade duty and they’re working 24-hour shifts and it’s customary that February is not in fact, busy. When people ask me ‘what month should I volunteer for jury duty?’ I tell them December and February because there’s less trials,” said defense attorney Jeffrey Smith.

“While we respect the decision of the Criminal District Court, our primary concern is always for the victims and witnesses we represent - many of whom have been working with our team in preparation for this month’s and next month’s trials,” Williams’ office said in a statement. “Our office will continue to do all we can to bring justice to families with all due speed throughout this temporary pause.”

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