NEW ORLEANS -- There was a lot of tough talk about cracking down on looters when Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans last summer, but the results in court have not been nearly as hard-hitting, according to an analysis of cases by Eyewitness News.
During the course of the slow-moving Category 1 hurricane, 42 people were arrested for looting in New Orleans. But more than eight months since Isaac made landfall, 31 defendants – nearly three out of four – are still waiting for trial.
Because most cases involve multiple defendants, the 42 suspects are awaiting trial in 17 different cases. The alleged looters caught by police were found throughout the city at businesses ranging from neighborhood convenience stores to chain retailers.
In the wake of the stalled cases, many frustrated business owners who were victimized are still waiting for resolution.
George Smith, owner of the S & S Club in Central City, was cleaned out of his liquor and cash, including the first dollar he earned, ripped from the wall where it was stapled behind his cash register.
Police say they caught three suspects in the act of looting inside Smith's bar. But like most business owners who were looted, Smith is still waiting for them to go to trial.
"The policemen that investigated said I shouldn't have to go to court. They caught them red-handed. All the evidence was there," Smith said.
Smith has kept the handful of subpoenas demanding his appearance in court as a witness. But each time he has showed up, he left after the case was postponed.
Smith's frustration comes more than eight months after the get-tough messages at the time of the storm.
In a press conference just after the Isaac passed through the New Orleans area, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a press conference, "The simple rule was if you loot, you get an orange suit. And we want people to be aware of the fact that we're going to have a zero tolerance."
At the same briefing, New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas echoed the mayor's warning: “Zero tolerance. Our team has done a very good job of interrupting many of these lootings in progress."
Mike Mohammed of Magnolia Supermarket is keeping track of 10 defendants who allegedly cleaned out his store, loading merchandise into the back of a pickup truck. He said he was heartbroken when the first he walked inside to find empty racks where his merchandise had been ransacked by looters.
"I cried. I cried like a baby,” Mohammed said. “I love my neighborhood. I love my 9th Ward. Who would do this?”
Looting is a felony with teeth, carrying a maximum of 15 years in prison and a mandatory minimum of three years.
In New Orleans, of the 11 defendants who have seen completed their cases completed, four pleaded guilty as charged. Three of them are serving the minimum three years behind bars. One is serving seven.
The seven others whose cases have been completed pleaded guilty to lesser charges. That includes three defendants who cut deals that reduced their charges down to criminal mischief and trespassing for taking food from a Carrollton neighborhood sweet shop. They received jail time ranging from 12 to 30 days, with credit for the time they served after they were arrested.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said his office was forced to cut a deal in that case because the store owners left town and would not return to testify.
But those completed cases are the exception. Most are still slogging through the court system, some after multiple delays and postponed trials.
Eugene Tumbs, owner of the Frenchmen Meat Market, estimated the looting losses at his convenience store at $80,000. He said he was ready to testify when he got his first subpoena months ago.
"It makes you feel that something's not right in the system,” Tumbs said. “Because during the hurricane they had already previously broadcast that if you get caught looting it was a mandatory three years in jail. I assumed that's what was happening."
Brad Cousins, director of CourtWatch NOLA, said the slow pace of looting cases matches what his group found for the entire docket at Tulane and Broad.
"These findings match exactly what our volunteers see in the courtroom every day. Delay after delay, plaguing the system," Cousins said. “We call it a culture of continuances because it pervades all the different parties at court and all the different types of cases."
Cannizzaro is among those who are frustrated. He said that the longer a case takes to go to trial, the harder it is to prosecute, especially if victims start giving up on the system.
"What you're seeing here is a part of a problem that we experience on a pretty frequent basis in criminal court,” Cannizzaro said. “I am just as upset about the delays as the victims are. I'm not interested in them getting disgusted by this process."
But defense attorney Jason Williams said fairness should never be sacrificed for swift justice. He said each case should be handled on its own merits. And those merits can vary widely.
"When you look into the facts of these individual cases,” Williams said, “all looting cases are not created equally. If you've got a kid running into a store running to steal a bag of Doritos when the streets or flooding or there's a storm, or diapers, or essentials, or water, that's a lot different than somebody stealing Rolexes from a jewelry store."
As we approach a new hurricane season, the same store owners who are waiting for justice in Isaac’s aftermath are preparing for another threat of flooding and fallen trees -- and potential looters.
"It's frustrating,” said George Smith of the S & S Club. “I think in five years, this is the fifth time this place has been broken into. Each time no one was punished. I end up going into my pocket to get a new door, new cash register, new liquor, and I'm just about ready to give it up."