Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams alleged last week that the city’s magistrate court regularly ignores his prosecutors’ pleas to set high bail amounts for people suspected of murder and other violent crimes.
But an analysis of data from the last five months shows that Williams’ office often seeks less than $500,000 bail for charges of murder, a figure Williams cited in a letter he sent to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Chief Judge Robin Pittman. The judge and commissioners of magistrate court, on the other hand, have set bail equal to or higher than that amount more than half the time.
In his letter, Williams wrote that the judge and commissioners “have exercised their discretion, and set bails far below our safety-centered recommendations.”
The newspaper's analysis found that, of 41 charges of murder and attempted murder, prosecutors requested bail of $500,000 or more for a little less than half. For only six of those charges did the court veer below the prosecutors' high bail recommendation.
By contrast, the court set bail at more than $500,000 in 10 cases for which prosecutors had asked for lower amounts. In all, the court set bail at $500,000 or more for 25 or those 41 charges, the analysis shows.
Williams' office did not respond to a request for comment about the Times-Picayune analysis of bail-setting data, which was provided by his office.
The district attorney's letter came in the wake of a City Council resolution aimed at promoting the use of Gwen’s Law as the city reels from?a series of murders with female victims?and grapples with?how it treats cases of domestic violence. The law, when invoked, allows courts to hold defendants in domestic violence cases without bail for up to five days.
On that issue, Williams pledged his office would “agree to hold” hearings under the law for certain domestic-violence charges.
But Williams' rebuke of the court also comes as the city’s jail has?swelled to its highest population level in years. More than 1,200 people were incarcerated there as of Friday. Defense advocates point to the swelling jail counts as a sign that purportedly low bail amounts aren't an issue.
‘Very few folks’ bonding out
Regardless of the amount, defendants have posted bond for three of those 41 murder charges, according to the analysis of charges filed since April 1.
“Very few folks with this level of bail are bonding out," said Danny Engelberg, chief public defender of the Orleans Public Defenders.
In setting bail, the court is supposed to evaluate 10 factors, balancing defendants’ financial wherewithal, their family ties and employment with their criminal record, along with the seriousness of the crimes of which they are accused and their danger to the public.
Engelberg called it “critical that pretrial incarceration remain individualized decisions instead of broad, sweeping policies that don’t take into consideration discreet facts and evidence.”
In his letter to Pittman, Williams claims he seeks bails that crest $500,000 for homicides and rapes, and between $50,000 and $75,000 for other violent crimes.
A copy of a recent bail schedule in Williams' office, however, shows that prosecutors are encouraged to request $250,000 for homicides and manslaughter.?
"The bail recommendations are to be used as a guide; each case is evaluated individually," Williams said in a statement Monday, describing the recommended bail amounts in the schedule as "starting points for evaluation."?
"This document is not a script and the assistant district attorneys in court are not actors.?They are lawyers, professionals, and this document is in no way a substitute for the required individual assessment," the DA's statement added.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said that Williams was likely referencing specific cases when he alleged that the magistrate court was setting low bails.
For example, in June, prosecutors asked Magistrate Commissioner Jay Daniels to set a $2 million bail for Christopher Strickland, who is accused of killing his 5-month-old daughter. Daniels instead set Strickland’s bail at $175,000. The 42-year-old defendant surrendered his passport and bonded out.
Strickland was one of the three defendants whose case appeared in the analysis and who bonded out of jail. Another, Norman Smith, posted a $145,600 property bond against his $800,000 bail.
Four more defendants have been released from jail, but not because they posted bond.?Chante Mark and Brandon Ferdinand, who were accused of gunning down a 19-year-old, Orlandeus Powell and Tyrek Gaines were released from the Orleans Justice Center after the district attorney’s office refused the murder charges against them, records show.
Gaines, whose charges were refused by prosecutors on Aug. 7,?died on Aug. 23, according to his obituary.
Goyeneche theorized that Williams may be dissatisfied with the bails set for people who “by any measure and standard have proven they are more of a danger to the public,” Goyeneche theorized.
But, he added, “the ultimate decision maker with respect to bail is the judge or commissioner.”