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New Orleans' violent tempest

As the city still struggles to control crime, cases have been bungled, and the district attorney is a lightning rod.

July 31, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The district attorney of this bloodstained city dropped murder charges this month against a man alleged to have massacred five teenagers, saying the sole witness was nowhere to be found.

A day later, an angry New Orleans police chief, who had not been warned that one of the city's most sensational criminal cases was being abandoned, trotted out the supposedly elusive witness at a news conference. He said it took his investigators three hours to locate her by calling a phone number sitting in the case file.

The bungling of the quintuple-murder case -- which has outraged New Orleans and led some officials to call for the head of Dist. Atty. Eddie J. Jordan Jr. -- illuminates the city's continuing inability to bring even high-profile suspects to justice.

Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, it has become clear that New Orleans' failure to control violent crime presents an obstacle to the city's repopulation every bit as big as the shortage of affordable rental housing and the slow disbursement of government aid to rebuild homes.

Yet the criminal justice system continues to be plagued by political backbiting, inexplicable communication breakdowns and, in some cases, outright incompetence.

"This is a city that's very fragile. People are deciding every day their future. And the criminal situation is leading people out of this city," City Council President Arnie Fielkow said at a heated meeting this month in which city officials lashed out at Jordan and in which two state legislators threatened Jordan with impeachment.

Despite abysmal poll numbers, Jordan firmly rejected calls for his resignation. He asserted that other politicians were trying to make him a scapegoat for systemic problems that reach back decades -- a contention that even some of Jordan's biggest critics did not challenge.

"No matter who sits in this chair, there are going to be some cases that fall apart," Jordan said in an interview. "They blame me, but if you have a one-witness case, with no fingerprint evidence, no ballistics, that is not a strong hand to play. And too many of these violent crime cases are coming down to a single eyewitness."

New Orleans was the nation's homicide capital once again last year, according to FBI statistics released last month, and it wasn't a close call. The city had 63.5 slayings per 100,000 residents in 2006, significantly more than such perennial homicide hotspots as Gary, Ind., and Detroit.

That's based on a generous estimate of New Orleans' 2006 population: 255,000, which is roughly what it is today. Using a smaller population estimate, a Tulane University demographer found that the per capita murder rate last year was 96 killings per 100,000 residents. In 2004, before the storm, the city had 57 homicides per 100,000 residents.

The city logged 161 killings last year. Having already surpassed 100 slayings this year, it is on pace for nearly 200, even though its population is still just slightly more than half of what it was before the storm.

New Orleans has been through worse crime plagues, such as the extraordinary 421 homicides in 1994, when its population was about 490,000. But reforms that cut the homicide rate in the 1990s seemingly lost their effectiveness, and the toll was climbing again even before Katrina dealt the criminal justice system a knockout blow.

Determining who is to blame is difficult in a city where politicians are forever pointing the finger at someone else, said Peter Scharf, the executive director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice at Texas State University, who has studied New Orleans crime for more than a decade. The answer, he said, seems to be everyone in a position of authority.

"New Orleans is a city of smoke and mirrors. Nothing is as it seems," he said. "When you have a political disaster like this, the temptation is to blame someone other than your organization. The dysfunctionality of the D.A.'s office certainly opens him up to blame.

"But what's happened to Eddie Jordan is like what happened to the Italians at El Alamein: He's been left out in the desert," he said, referring to a famous battle in Egypt in World War II.

At the council meeting, it was evident that calls for Jordan to resign had divided the city along familiar racial lines: Nearly all of those who rose to defend Jordan were black; nearly all who criticized him were white. Jordan is the city's first African American district attorney.

Just a few years ago, Jordan, a former U.S. attorney, was the toast of Louisiana after finally winning a conviction against former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. Jordan had succeeded Harry Connick Sr., the father of the popular singer and pianist, who was district attorney for nearly three decades.

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