On November 3, 2020 New Orleans will vote to elect a new District Attorney. For twelve years, District Attorney Leon Cannizarro took our city backwards, criminalizing our most poor, locking up minor offenders for months, and abusing victims of crime. It is crucial now to elect a district attorney who will move us forward out of this dark era. District Attorney candidate Keva Landrum’s track record is not one that has demonstrated ethical fairness to the judicial process. As a prosecutor, Landrum has a troublesome record of mishandling evidence; and as a judge, she has a concerning record presiding over cases in a fair and unbiased manner. Oftentimes, with Judge Landrum in charge, it was the defendants themselves who were victims of ethical misconduct.
Conservative John Georges’ publication, the Advocate and its subsidiaries have endorsed Keva Landrum for District Attorney. These conservative-leaning publications do not have a track record of endorsing progressive candidates whose policies and views most closely align with the voters of New Orleans.
But we at Big Easy Magazine would prefer to advance our own argument – rather than criticizing those who endorsed her – about why Judge Keva Landrum’s election to District Attorney would be catastrophic for the City of New Orleans.
Negligent Handling Exculpatory Evidence in Brady
Following Eddie Jordan’s resignation in 2007, Keva Landrum became acting district attorney. Later, she was elected as a criminal court judge. During her tenure as deputy prosecutor in the DA’s office, she and other prosecutors did not receive proper training in handling cases affected by the landmark Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland. In 1963 (Brady v. Maryland), the United States Supreme Court ruled that when the prosecution withholds exculpatory evidence – evidence showing one’s innocence – they violate the defendant’s due process.
In 1996, Robert Jones was convicted of rape, kidnapping, robbery, and murder. He received a life sentence without parole. Despite a police investigation finding no actual evidence linking Robert Jones to any of the crimes, and despite several victims reporting they only witnessed one assailant–Lester Jones–commit the crimes, the Orleans Parish DA’s office still charged Robert Jones with rape and for playing a role in the murder. Those district attorneys, under Landrum’s office, won that conviction while withholding evidence that would have shown Jones’s innocence.
In January 2017, Robert Jones’ lawyers successfully argued that the Orleans DA’s office failed to disclose an internal memo from 1996. That memo revealed that police had knowledge that Robert Jones and Lester Jones had no ties to one another.
But by the time the case went to a retrial, District Attorney Landrum had become Judge Landrum, and the case was assigned to her division. Mr. Jones’ attorneys argued that because Landrum worked in the Orleans DA’s office during the prosecutorial misconduct of Robert Jones’ case in 2007-2008, it would be a conflict of interest for her to preside over a retrial. Specifically, the lawyers cited an internal memo that revealed police knew that Lester Jones was not connected to Robert Jones at the time. Consequently, then District Judge Arthur Hunter at the time forced Landrum to recuse herself from presiding over the retrial.
After the case was eventually challenged on the grounds of failure to turn over exculpatory evidence that favored the defendant, Louisiana’s 4th circuit court of Appeals vacated Robert Jones’ convictions in 2014, citing Brady violations. Eventually, on January 26, 2017, the DA’s office dropped the charges against Robert Jones.
Robert Jones became a free man after 23 years spent wrongfully behind bars, but Judge Landrum fought it every step of the way. Now, she wants to be our district attorney.
Although the victim continued to identify Robert Jones as the perpetrator, the lawsuit pointed out that eyewitness misidentifications comprised two-thirds of convictions being overturned as a result of DNA exculpatory evidence between 1989 to 2014. A report from 1989 to 2012 highlighted that Orleans Parish led the nation in exonerations per capita, 13 times greater than the national average.
Later, Ms. Landrum was called upon to testify herself in State v Jones as to the Brady training she provided her Assistant District Attorneys while serving as Interim DA. Ms. Landrum testified that she could not recall organizing any Brady training while she was DA. Her subsequent failure to provide proper training on Brady to her assistant district attorneys— even after witnessing how neglecting the case led to the overturning of wrongful convictions— demonstrates a blatant disregard for fair and ethical prosecutorial practices. This case law is key to understanding ethical handling, weighing and consideration of evidence. The failure to properly receive and provide training on Brady would continue to inform other decisions throughout her career that would paint a picture of ethical misconduct.
The illegal disregard for Brady law precedent during Judge Landrum’s tenure in the Connick run DA’s office was so egregious that her office was sued multiple times. These suits resulted in yet more overturned convictions and monetary judgments against the OPDA. This was the type of foundational training received by Ms. Landrum when she began her career as a prosecutor.
Landrum may be able to justify her decision to carry out prosecutorial practices under the supervision of Harry Connick, Sr. but the truth is that most new law graduates understand the requirements of Brady. If they do not, they learn it within their first year of criminal practice.
The far better explanation is that District Attorney Keva Landrum failed to properly train her staff attorneys on basic legal tenets that ensure fair and just trials. In New Orleans, prosecution is a brutal sport, and winning takes precedence. As a result, she developed the same mentality as so many other New Orleans district attorneys, past and present – that of an arbiter of the law rather than a person under the law.
If you are wondering why there are so many problems with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, you need look no further than there. But the problem with Judge Keva Landrum runs deeper than prosecutorial ruthlessness. Keva Landrum has proved to be a part of the same systemic corruption in New Orleans that she now claims to oppose.
Failure to Prosecute Police Brutality Against Black Men
In 2008, off-duty NOPD officers physically attacked RTA workers after a verbal exchange in the Canal Street staple Beechcorner Bar & Grill. In what was described as a racially motivated attack, white police officers beat, planted a gun on an assault victim, coerced a bar patron into providing a false witness statement, and engineered a cover-up. The white NOPD officers hurled racial epithets at the victim – a Black man.
From the Saturday, May 12, 2012 Times-Picayune,: “[NOPD] officers conspired to falsely arrest RTA worker Lamont Williams and persuaded a civilian bar patron to participate in a cover-up by making a false police report.”
A Racist Brawl Between RTA and NOPD
The Times-Picayune summarized what occurred on Mardi Gras night in 2008 at the Beechcorner Lounge, as alleged by the RTA workers and available records.
At around 8pm, around 30 white NOPD officers gathered at the Beechcorner Lounge, which is owned by former NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas’ son-in-law, “blowing off steam” after Carnival season.
Four Regional Transit Authority workers also visited the Lounge to play pool. One RTA employee, Kennis Hagan, went to use the restroom. Sgt. Warren Keller, Jr. allegedly had the same idea.
According to Mr. Hagan, Sgt. Keller skipped him in the line for the urinal. Mr. Hagan objected to Keller.
“Are you getting cocky?” Sgt. Keller allegedly replied.
Mr. Hagan told his friends it was time to leave after tensions continued to grow, but the NOPD took it outside.
That’s when Mr. Hagan’s co-worker, Damon Tobias, was punched from behind. Mr. Hagan and his co-workers reported hearing them yell “take them out!” and the RTA workers tried to flee.
All of the officers were in plainclothes, unidentifiable to the public as police. Mr. Hagan got to his car and told a female officer, Jennifer Payne Samuel, that he would use force against the attackers if he had to. Then Officer Payne reached into his car and took Mr. Hagan’s gun.
Mr. Hagan then dialed 911. Uniformed officers arrived and arrested his friend and co-worker, Lamont Williams.
One moment sticks in Mr. Williams’s mind after he fled the Beachcorner Lounge:
An unidentified white man who told him “You niggers picked the wrong bar.”
Interim DA Drops Charges After “Unrelated Drowning”
Although the then Superintendent of Police testified against the officers involved, Interim District Attorney Landrum refused charges, despite the fact that the NOPD’s internal investigation found that the police “committed numerous criminal violations and recommended charges against 5 officers.”
The evidence of police misconduct in this incident was so glaring that federal authorities convened a grand jury.
Why would Interim District Attorney Landrum refuse charges? Could it be because 2nd District Police Chief & future Superintendent of Police Ronal Serpas’s son-in-law, officer Travis Ward, was present? Could it be because newly elected District Attorney Cannizzaro’s daughter Laura was present at the brawl?
Interim District Attorney Landrum decided not to press charges, allegedly because a key witness died before the matter could come to a trial. His cause of death was “an unrelated drowning.” We know no more about how he drowned.
But what we do know is that there are “hundreds of pages of police reports and files, internal investigative documents and taped statements, as well as testimony in Civil Service hearings.” According to the Times-Picayune, the NOPD also substantiated numerous accusations.
Despite this wealth of evidence at Interim District Attorney Keva Landrum’s disposal, her office still refused the charges.
As we learned after Hurricane Katrina, police and prosecutors protect their own kind. Judge Landrum’s actions show that she is of the same mentality as Cannizzaro.
A reform-minded DA does not overlook criminal conduct, even if the perpetrators are politically connected or even her peers. A District Attorney should hold police officers to the highest standards of ethical conduct – and Keva Landrum refused to do so, at a time when the city was still reeling from memories of the racially—charged police murders of Henry Glover and the Danziger Five.
Reversal on Marijuana Convictions
In July 2008, the libertarian-learning Reason Magazine took aim at District Attorney Keva Landrum’s regressive new policy of charging minor non-violent marijuana offenses as felonies if the offenders had prior convictions. In 2008, under Louisiana law, a first time marijuana offender was charged with a misdemeanor typically punishable by a small fine, but could have resulted in up to six month jail sentences. Second and third time offenses were considered felonies at the time punishable by longer prison sentences. The Appeal also reported that in contrast to her predecessors who often treated all marijuana offenses as misdemeanors, Orleans Parish DA Landrum reversed the office’s policies in order to rack up felony convictions.
During the short time Landrum was acting DA, she garnered national attention for prosecuting repeat offenses for marijuana possession as felonies, charges that could result in five to 20 years in prison. As acting DA, Landrum not only followed the draconian practices of her predecessor, she ratchetted them up.
Still today, Judge Landrum has declined to say whether or not she would decline to prosecute minor marijuana charges as District Attorney – while the other two candidates soundly agree that there are other charges that merit that attention. In fact, she told NOLA.com that she would send those charges to Municipal Court. According to that same article, Judge Landrum has a history of “upcharging” second and third-degree marijuana possession charges to felonies. This practice effectively opens the door to sending people to prison for years for possession marijuana.
Despite this clear record, Judge Landrum told The Appeal: Political Report, “I would disagree that I had a punitive record,” noting that filing felony charges matched state law. Before her term, the office routinely treated such cases as misdemeanors, which carry much lower penalties.
Critics accused her of racking up felony convictions to make it appear that the DA’s office was tackling violent crime after New Orleans was declared a “murder capital.” Meanwhile mostly Black people languish for years in prison for possessing a substance that is legal in almost a dozen states.
Fouad Zeton Jr.
Perhaps the most gut-wrenching and tragic case that then Criminal Court Judge Keva Landrum presided over was the prosecution of James Nero, the 21 year old man who was charged with the murder of Fouad Zeton Jr. Zeton Jr.’s killer was eventually acquitted after Judge Landrum ordered the prosecution to withhold compelling video footage that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office believed would have resulted in a guilty verdict for James Nero and justice for Foaud Zeton Jr.
In August 2018, after a verbal altercation between Zeton Jr. and Nero, who some described as friends, began in Attiki bar and continued outside. Nero left the bar to retrieve a gun. He returned and subsequently shot and killed Zeton, Jr. Nero claimed that he went to get the gun because he feared Zeton would beat him up. In video footage obtained by Fox News Channel 8, Nero and Zeton are exchanging words in close proximity, but without any physical contact. Nero walks away and he returned and pulled out a gun. When Zeton Jr. attempts to slap the gun away in a clear effort to defend himself, Nero fires his weapon, resulting in the death of Zeton Jr.
Nero was booked and charged with second degree murder, but was eventually acquitted in 2019 as a result of Louisiana’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law. The state law allows a person to meet force with force when threatened in their homes or a public place where they have a right to be.
Nero said he was afraid of Zeton, claiming that he would have never been able to defend himself. However, the Orleans Parish DA’s office attempted to introduce video footage that shows Nero’s history of fighting, which prosecutors argued clearly demonstrated that he would have easily been able to defend himself against Zeton, who was unarmed and was never shown to pose a significant threat to Nero during the entire altercation.
Despite the district attorney office’s efforts to introduce video footage they believed would have resulted in a guilty verdict on the count of second-degree murder, Judge Landrum deemed the footage too prejudicial.
Fox News also obtained text messages that Judge Landrum inadvertently sent ex parte during the trial to the prosecutor, Jason Napoli.
“Had to go in on Napoli again. How u don’t have ur rebuttal witness here,” Landrum accidentally texted Napoli.
Landum proceeded, “and trying to back door in [Louisiana Code of Evidence Article] 404 [character evidence] that I previously denied and the 4th [Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal] denied.”
Upon receiving the messages, Napoli texted back to Landrum: “whoops.” Napoli sarcastically responded “this seems appropriate.”
Judge Landrum concludes “It is. Happy u saw it. Now u know my thoughts.”
Judges are generally not allowed to communicate with one party in any case proceeding. In this matter, Judge Landrum was clearly intending to contact the defense counsel, ex parte, about the prosecution.
But when Napoli asked Judge Landrum for whom the texts were intended, Judge Landrum responded “None of ur business.”
Zeton tells Big Easy Magazine that his son was denied justice due to Judge Landrum disallowing critical and compelling video footage that would have proven that his son was a victim of murder and not simply a bystandard or casualty of self-defense.
“My poor baby was deprived of the opportunity to defend himself like the criminal who murdered him. He was unable to take the witness stand and the judge allowed him to tell uncountless lies,” Zeton said.
Zeton said he believes in America’s justice system, but feels he did not receive justice in the case of his son’s murder. “My son did not receive justice because of the negligence and corruption in the criminal district court at the hands of Judge Landrum.”
Zeton said he has filed a formal judicial complaint with the Bar Association over Judge Landrum’s inappropriate communications with the prosecuting attorney. The complaint alleges that Landrum’s personal messages that were intended for the defense attorney raised questions about Judge Landrum’s ability to preside fairly in an unbiased manner over his son’s trial. Zeton told Big Easy Magazine that he hopes the complaint will result in Landrum being disciplined.
Zeton Sr. believes Judge Landrum’s negligence and judicial misconduct in his son’s trial is a perfect example of why voters should reject Landrum’s candidacy on November 3rd.
A Murky Pattern of Inequitable Treatment
Throughout her career as a prosecutor, District Attorney candidate Keva Landrum has demonstrated prosecutorial misconduct, unethical handling of exculpatory evidence, and support for draconian policies that only serve to exacerbate mass incarceration. District Attorney candidate Keva Landrum has proven to be the antithesis of a reform-minded and progressive lawyer, judge and prosecutor.
As deputy prosecutor at the Orleans Parish DA’s office, she has demonstrated negligence of handling exculpatory evidence that led to the wrongful conviction of Robert Jones. As interim district attorney in 2008, she instituted policies that imposed harsh penalties on repeat offenders of nonviolent crimes such as simple marijuana possessions. Finally her ill-advised judgment in partaking in ex-parte communication with an attorney while presiding over a murder trial brings into question her underlying judicial motives.
Judge Landrum’s platform – or lack thereof – begins to look even more similar to that of Cannizzaro when you look further into her refusal to reform pretrial and procedural practices. For example, she refused to pledge to charge defendants held before trial within five days of arrest. In Louisiana, defendants who cannot afford bail – whether they are innocent or not – may serve up to 60 days in jail without ever being charged.
She is the only candidate who refuses to pledge to end Cannizarros’s draconian practices of jailing victims of violent crimes in order to secure their testimony. Judge Landrum also refused to stop applying Louisiana’s Habitual Offender statutes to criminal defendants. The Habitual Offender laws are responsible for sending people to decades or even life in prison for even small crimes. For example, this summer the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the life sentence for a man who stole hedge clippers over 20 years ago.
After 12 years of punitive policies by outgoing District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, New Orleanians need a district attorney whose approach to prosecuting will result in fairness to those who are so often victims of police brutality, coverups, and ethical prosecutorial misconduct.
Charles Schully was also responsible for editing and contributing to this piece.