New Orleans has always turned a blind eye to sin. But now you can even get away with murder
Mardi Gras season arrived in New Orleans this year with huge promise. With more than 800,000 visitors expected and 90 percent of hotel rooms booked, the city’s Katrina-ravaged tourism industry was watering at the mouth. On February 2, the Krewe of Endymion, a neighborhood organization that has participated in Carnival since 1966, rolled out its massive floats for the first time since the hurricane, with Kevin Costner leading the way as grand marshal. Local officials touted the third festival after the storm as another hopeful step toward the city’s full recovery. From a perch along the route, Mayor Ray Nagin worked the media. “This one feels a lot like what we had pre-Katrina,” he announced before a throng of television cameras. “It looks like we’re continuing to get stronger every day.”
But his prediction turned out to be premature. Just hours later, as the procession rolled down Canal Street, an outbreak of violence shattered the city’s carefully orchestrated comeback. Five people were shot when an argument erupted between two teens. It was just one of five separate incidents along the parade route that resulted in nine people being hospitalized with gunshot wounds—including one unsuspecting hotel guest who was struck in the head by a stray bullet in the lobby of a Holiday Inn near City Hall. By the time it was over, Mardi Gras 2008 turned out to be one of the most violent in New Orleans’ history. The unprecedented outbreak of mayhem shocked even the city’s battle-hardened police chief, Warren Riley, who shakily held a press conference denouncing the “young, brazen thugs” ruining Carnival season. The camera crews that were supposed to trumpet the city’s return to pre-Katrina glory instead recorded yet another step in its steady descent into chaos. “New Orleans Nightmare,” blasted Drudge in a headline picked up far and wide. By week’s end, to the dismay of Nagin and the city leadership, the celebration had become a nationally publicized fiasco.
Overrun by competing gangs and guarded by a notoriously corrupt police force, New Orleans has never been a peaceful city. But since Katrina, its crime rate has spun out of control. In 2006, after racking up 162 homicides, the Big Easy eclipsed gang-plagued cities like Compton and Detroit to claim the crown as the murder capital of the United States. By the end of 2007, the total number of homicides jumped to 209. And this year, the city is well on its way to topping that ignominious record again. Philadelphia—aka Killadelphia—had about 27 murders per 100,000 people in 2007; Baltimore recorded 44 per 100,000; and New York City had only six per 100,000. By way of comparison, conservative estimates put the city’s 2007 murder rate at more than 63 per 100,000. That places it somewhere between the gang-infested favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the war-ravaged streets of Baghdad. As one prominent criminal defense attorney puts it, “I don’t know that there would be many more murders here if there were no police at all.” Meanwhile, killings have become so commonplace that the epidemic now touches just about every corner of New Orleans, from the devastated Ninth Ward and bohemian Faubourg Marigny to the tonier neighborhoods uptown. “Murder in New Orleans is becoming more democratic,” says Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf, acidly. “Now, even white people have a chance to get killed.”
The socioeconomic devastation wrought by Katrina has had wide-ranging consequences, made worse by catastrophic failures in political leadership. In the days following the storm, 50 percent of the population fled. Many former residents never returned, and those who remained are disproportionately poor. The disaster also devastated the police department, which saw a sizable number of its members desert their units, some of them fleeing town in expensive vehicles looted from New Orleans lots. In the aftermath, the criminal justice system has all but collapsed.
Though police make arrests, the city’s inept District Attorney’s office seems unable to successfully prosecute the suspects. Of those 162 murders committed in 2006, they managed to secure just a single conviction (rates for 2007 were not available at press time). Harry Tervalon, Jr., a prosecutor in the DA’s elite Violent Offenders Unit (VOU), quit last year after only two months on the job because he wasn’t provided with a phone, a computer, or an e-mail address of his own. The demoralized VOU didn’t even have its own Xerox machine, which meant Tervalon spent large parts of his day waiting in line to use the machines in other departments. “I was hired to try serious violent offenders,” Tervalon explains. “I didn’t think it was right to pay me what they were paying me to make copies.”
Mayor Ray Nagin promised to make murder his number one priority. But several months later, he seemed to have found a silver lining to the crisis, telling reporters that the murder rate “keeps the New Orleans brand out there”The problem is exacerbated by Article 701 of Louisiana’s criminal code, which states that felony suspects cannot be held for longer than 60 days without an indictment. As a result, the DA was forced to put nearly 3,000 drug, rape, robbery, and murder suspects back on the streets in 2006 (2007 numbers are unavailable). The police department attributes much of the blame for its low clearance rate to a “no snitch” ethos on the streets, but Tervalon argues that witnesses don’t come forward because they’ve lost faith in the criminal justice system. “When the system isn’t working, you don’t participate in it,” he says. “There was one case recently where a mother would not cooperate in the investigation of the murder of her own son. It scares me.”
Oblivious to the growing wave of death, the city’s political leaders rise to the occasion only when forced to by particularly gruesome events. In January, a 24-year-old police officer was killed with her own weapon by a rape suspect who had been released from a state mental facility just days before. Even more alarming was the death of Helen Hill, an independent filmmaker who was murdered in front of her husband and two-year-old son during a botched home invasion last year. Hill’s husband, Paul Gailiunas, a physician at a health clinic for low-income residents, was awakened by his wife’s screams just after 5 a.m. He rushed out of the bedroom with his son in his arms to find Helen struggling with an intruder. Before he could intervene, the attacker shot and killed her. Then, as Paul ran for cover, the gunman shot him in his left forearm, right hand, and cheek. (Miraculously, the child escaped from the barrage unscathed.) Hill’s death, which was covered on Oprah and 48 Hours Mystery, sparked a public outcry and an angry march on City Hall calling for an end to violence.
Appearing before the jeering crowd, Mayor Nagin promised to make murder his number one priority. But several months later, he seemed to have found a silver lining to the crisis, telling reporters that the murder rate “keeps the New Orleans brand out there.” Nagin was looking on the bright side again when he reassured a group of Carnival Cruise executives that they needn’t be concerned with the killings, because only black drug dealers were being slain. “You don’t have anything to worry about,” Nagin told the crowd. “I’m looking at this audience and you all don’t look like young African American males who are involved in drug activity.”