NEW ORLEANS — Five days after Mayor Cantrell sparked a firestorm of criticism over her court appearance in support of the family of a juvenile carjacker, she is still ducking questions about the lingering controversy.
When a WWL-TV reporter asked Cantrell about the matter Tuesday at an unrelated public appearance, she responded, “I'm not taking any off-topic questions at this time. However, I will make myself available to answer any questions that you have.”
While Cantrell still isn’t talking about the matter, other people are sounding off, including some officials usually supportive of the mayor. They are questioning not only her actions, but her silence.
“I don't have the authority to tell the mayor or any elected official what to do,” said City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who is usually politically aligned with Cantrell. “But as chairman of Criminal Justice (committee) and someone who listens to the stories, who consoles victims, the rights of the victims and their families have to be first.”
Cantrell appeared in juvenile court Thursday for the sentencing of a 14-year-old boy who was given probation for three first-degree robberies in which he used a fake gun to take the cars of three victims. The youth, who was 13 at the time of the crimes, had been enrolled in the mayor’s “Pathways Youth Internship Program,” but Cantrell’s direct connection to this particular participant remains a mystery.
Two of the victims appeared in court to give victim impact statements. In exclusive interviews with WWL-TV, they expressed anger and disappointment over the mayor showing up in court to console the family of the robber.
Thomas said supporting crime victims is not just good public relations, but necessary to get cooperation with police and prosecutors, especially with violent crime spiking and NOPD manpower at a 50-year low.
“We want to make sure that victims have the support of the system and the support of our leaders to come forward,” he said. “To come forward, right? To make sure they can help us in fighting some of this crime…So they’re not afraid to be witnesses. So they’re not afraid to say what happened to them.”
Independent pollster and Xavier University Professor Silas Lee has done work for Cantrell during both of her successful campaigns for mayor. He said the mayor may have an explanation for her court appearance, but her silence has allowed critics to fill the vacuum.
“Voters are so emotional right now anything can distract their attention or create the appearance that someone is fully and coherent with what they want,” Lee said. “You have to keep both hands on the wheel or otherwise you lose control. In today's environment, it's very easy to lose control of the narrative.”
Chief Juvenile Court Judge Ranord Darensburg sentenced the teen to probation even though prosecutors argued for detention. District Attorney Jason Williams said he was disappointed in the sentence and that Cantrell’s appearance was a surprise to his office.
Thomas said he may explore a system in which judges are notified who is present at court hearings and whether they are supporting defendants, victims or just appearing as neutral observers.