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Criminal trials resume in New Orleans but jurors are still needed

Of the 4,000 jury notices that went out recently, several hundred citizens never responded.

NEW ORLEANS — Victims of violent crimes and those accused of committing them, could finally have their day in court in New Orleans.

It's been two years since there were daily jury trials in Orleans Criminal District Court, but Monday, half of the courtrooms reopened. After two years with only a few jury trials in Orleans Criminal District Court, the steps at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street will finally be busy again.

“Even Katrina, it wasn't shut down for two years, so this is unprecedented,” said Rafael Goyeneche, President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

The MCC says the delayed cases are mostly felony crimes of violence, or  felony weapons offenses, like murders, robberies, and sexual assaults.

“The people that are in pretrial custody, between 950 and 1,000, are some of the most dangerous individuals in this community. We track the inmate population, and as of last week there were 205 people waiting to be tried just on homicide charges,” said Goyeneche.

Some of the top people in the district attorney's office tried cases Monday, including the D.A. himself, to get the backlog moving. And now, he says, being prepared takes on a new meaning.  

“This is the first administration that has had to deal with the requirement of unanimous juries. So it means trying a case is very different than it's ever been before. You've got to have 12 out of 12 coming back with the exact same verdict, said Jason Williams, Orleans District Attorney. 

The public defender's office is feeling the extra workload pressure too.

“We are expecting a good deal of work. Even today we had competition for the jurors who are available for a number of trials. With only 100 jurors coming at a time, it's going to be, it's going to be slow, but it's going to be deliberate,” said Derwyn Bunton, Chief Public Defender for New Orleans.

Many of the cases will be resolved through plea bargains.

The Metropolitan Crime Commission believes that part of the reason, just part of the reason that crime has risen is because the parish hasn't had jury trials.

The DA's office does not agree, saying crime has gone up in places with jury trials, but one thing they all agree upon is the need for people to do their civic duty. Of the 4,000 jury notices that went out, several hundred citizens never responded.

“Civic participation is huge in terms of jurors showing up,” said Williams.

“If we don't' have jurors the system is being held hostage,” said Goyeneche.

The court is still not opening up fully. Only half of the 12 sections of criminal court will have trials.

People who do not respond to jury notices can be found in contempt of court.

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