The Case of Vanishing Witnesses

Exhausting Leads

In the district attorney's office, the hunt for witnesses is a constant and costly exercise.

Damaged files and evidence have forced prosecutors to rebuild pre-Katrina homicide cases, which almost always requires investigators to reinterview wary witnesses, Savwoir says.

Cases filed since the storm also have been plagued by chronic court delays, inadequate forensic analyses and the lack of witnesses, according to testimony provided last month to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mayor Nagin has suggested that many prosecutions have suffered from a simple lack of effort.

In the case that sparked the attorney general's investigation, Jordan dismissed murder charges against Michael Anderson, citing an inability to locate a key witness. Anderson was accused in the slayings of five teenagers in June 2006.

Other lesser charges prevented his release. Nagin said Jordan's earlier decision to drop the case displayed a "disturbing pattern" of behavior by the district attorney's office that was "unacceptable."

Savwoir says investigators have been tracking murder witnesses to their post-Katrina locations and paying their expenses to return for debriefing sessions.

In the past year, the district attorney's office has spent more than $100,000 for travel and living expenses for the return of witnesses and their families, Savwoir says. In 80% of the cases, the witnesses have been lodged at hotels and returned to their new homes after their help is no longer needed.

In one murder investigation this year, the district attorney paid $16,000 in travel, lodging and food for a family of four to stay in New Orleans four months. Three of the family members were potential witnesses, requiring the temporary relocation of the entire family.

"This family was very needy, and we were taking care of their daily needs," Savwoir says.

Jordan, the district attorney, says the problems are extremely complex. A solution, he says, will take money and time. "Nobody understands what we're up against here."

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