NEW ORLEANS — All trials at New Orleans Criminal Court have been postponed through the end of February after defense attorneys objected to the court’s exclusion of convicted felons from the jury pool.
After an emergency en banc meeting of the judges Monday afternoon, Chief Judge Robin Pittman wrote to the general counsel of the organization VOTE – Voice of the Experienced – that the jury pools in New Orleans “have been deferred for the remainder of January 2023 and February 2023.”
The controversy came to a head Monday as defense attorneys for a man being tried for second-degree murder objected to the exclusion despite a change in the law allowing felons to serve on juries as long as they have been off probation or parole for more than five years.
The trial of Samuel Preston was halted in mid-jury selection on Jan. 18 when defense attorneys argued that the process didn’t adhere to the new law. An evidentiary hearing before Judge Rhonda Goode-Douglas was scheduled for Monday, but that hearing was canceled because court officials had not yet responded to a subpoena for records that were issued last week.
The sudden decision to shut down upcoming jury trials for more than a month could seriously hamper the court’s efforts to chip away at a backlog of cases that has built up since Covid-19 shut down trials in 2020. The delay also comes amid heightened concerns about violent crime and the court’s role in holding defendants accountable for violent crimes.
The halt in trials also raises the question about jury convictions obtained since the new law was adopted in mid-2021. At least one person convicted of murder – Michael Shorts – is appealing his conviction based on the “error” in how his jury was selected.
Court officials did not respond to requests for comment about the shutdown.