After 12 years as Orleans Parish, Louisiana District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro (pictured) has announced that he will not seek re-election and will be retiring as D.A. at the end of this term. Cannizzaro’s tenure in office was marked by his aggressive defense of prior official misconduct in capital cases, misconduct by his office while he was District Attorney, and revelations that Orleans Parish prosecutors had routinely issued fake subpoenas and threatened imprisonment to coerce victims and witnesses to cooperate with law enforcement.

When Cannizzaro became D.A. in 2009, the office was facing a civil rights lawsuit by death-row exoneree John Thompson, who had been framed for a murder and for an unrelated robbery that made him eligible for the death penalty in the murder case. A federal court jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages, but Cannizzaro appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and, after he lost that appeal, to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a controversial 5-4 decision by Justice Clarence Thomas that Supreme Court analyst Dahlia Lithwick called “one of the meanest Supreme Court decisions ever,” the Court overturned the verdict, declaring that the prosecutors were immune from suit for actions undertaken in their prosecutorial capacity. Nevertheless, the suit exposed rampant prosecutorial misconduct in the Orleans Parish DA’s office that continued throughout Cannizzaro’s tenure.

In April 2020, the Fifth Circuit ruled against Cannizzaro in a civil rights lawsuit challenging the D.A.’s practice of issuing “fake subpoenas” and falsifying information to obtain material witness arrest warrants to pressure victims and witnesses to provide favorable testimony in parish homicide and other prosecutions. The court ruled that absolute immunity was limited to conduct within “the judicial context” and that Orleans Parish prosecutors’ manipulation of subpoenas and warrants “falls into the category of investigative conduct for which prosecutors are not immune.”

All five Orleans Parish death-row exonerations, and all eleven death-row exonerations in the state since the 1970s, have involved official misconduct, usually accompanied by perjury or false accusation. At least ten death-sentenced Orleans Parish prisoners have had their death sentences overturned as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, including Michael Anderson, the last person sentenced to death under Cannizzaro’s administration.

Cannizzaro’s announcement that he would not run came on July 24, 2020, less than 90 minutes before the end of the qualifying period to appear on the election ballot. His decision threw the parish election into disarray.

Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct have been rampant across Louisiana. The use of fake subpoenas had gone on for decades under several Orleans Parish district attorneys and had expanded to other parishes before being exposed by a New Orleans publication, The Lens, in April 2017. At that time, a spokesperson for Cannizzaro said that the “[t]he district attorney does not see any legal issues with respect to this policy.” However, Orleans Parish prosecutors immediately stopped issuing the orders, followed quickly by prosecutors in two other Louisiana parishes.

On June 8, 2020, Iberia Parish prosecutors dropped murder charges against Roy Verret after a defense DNA analyst discovered that prosecutors had switched DNA samples taken from the murder weapon and from Verret’s washing machine and used the mislabeled sample as evidence to arrest Verret. At the time of his April 19, 2017 arrest, police and Iberia Parish prosecutors asserted they were “99.9 percent certain” that Verret had committed the murder. They later said they had accidentally switched the DNA samples.

On June 24, 2020, a federal district court in Louisiana allowed a civil rights lawsuit filed by former death-row prisoner Michael Wearry against Louisiana police and prosecutors to proceed to trial. Wearry had charged that a detective in the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office, acting in concert with local District Attorney Scott Perrilloux, had “pull[ed] a 14-year-old boy out of school on at least six occasions to intimidate him into offering false testimony at a murder trial.” Wearry alleged that the boy’s testimony had been “concocted wholesale by th[e] detective and prosecutor and carefully rehearsed.” Law enforcement had used “scare tactics” to ensure the boy’s cooperation, the suit asserted, including removing him from class “to view the murder victim’s bloody car.”

Relying on the Fifth Circuit’s ruling against Cannizzaro in the fake subpoena case, the district court rejected the district attorney’s and the detective’s argument that their conduct constituted legal advocacy for which they enjoyed absolute immunity.


Matt Sledge and John Simerman, New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro says he won’t run again, end­ing era and con­tro­ver­sial career, New Orleans Advocate, July 24, 2020; Heather Murphy, A DNA Mix-Up Involving a Washing Machine Kept a Man in Jail for 3 Years, New York Times, June 26, 2020; Laura Maggie, U.S. Supreme Court rejects $14 mil­lion judg­ment against New Orleans dis­trict attorney’s office, New Orleans Advocate, March 30, 2011; Dahlia Lithwick, Cruel but Not Unusual, Slate, April 12011.

Read the Fifth Circuit deci­sion in Singleton v. Cannizzaro, the fake sub­poe­na” case, and the fed­er­al dis­trict court opin­ion in Wearry v. Perrilloux.