New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin had important announcements to make. This was the third time in as many years that Mayor Nagin found himself addressing a panicked public trying to recover from or prepare for cataclysmic hurricanes: first Katrina (looter pictured above), then Rita, and now Gustav. “This is the Storm of the Century,” the mayor proclaimed on Saturday.
Big storms call for big words. And Mayor Nagin was full of them. A mandatory evacuation had been ordered in anticipation of a Category 4 hurricane. The mayor had a warning for anyone who did not follow orders to evacuate: Watch out for flying mobile homes. Trailers would become “projectiles,” he said, and would “start to fly around the city.”
I was not ready to accept that the Constitution would be thrown to the wind as well—that police would pluck looters from the streets of New Orleans and haul the accused to Louisiana's Death Row. If cows could fly in Twister, BS could fly in a press conference. Nothing unrealistic about that. In fact, City Hall seemed as fitting a venue as any. But the mayor's message was broadcast worldwide.
“You will not have a temporary stay in the city," Mayor Nagin continued. "You’ll go directly to the Big House, in general population. You will go directly to Angola Prison. And God bless you when you go there."
Given New Orleans’ experience during the storms of 2005, cautioning would-be looters was called for—especially after Hurricane Katrina, when pilfering was so widespread that even uniformed members of law enforcement were filmed helping themselves to goods from a Wal-Mart.
I remember how stunned I had been to see police captured on tape, stealing in the storm-torn town they were sworn to protect. But I found Nagin's message even more shocking. Here was the Mayor of New Orleans making an official announcement, threatening thieves picking over others' belongings with a direct ticket to "general population" in the nation's largest maximum-security prison, the "Alcatraz of the South." It was unbelievable.
C.J. 101: Arrestees are detained in jails, not prisons. Penitentiaries house those who have been convicted of a crime, felons who have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
But after watching credible journalists like Wolf Blitzer perpetuate Nagin’s claim that looters would be sent directly to Angola, I started to wonder . . . Could it be true? Yet another report made me reconsider my initial impression. A New Orleans-based broadcast journalist interviewed by CNN echoed the cable network's reports that looters would be sent directly to the Big House. "They’re serious," he said, seeming, well, serious.
When in Louisiana . . .
I decided to check the statute, which I was not surprised to see had been revised since the storms of 2005:
"Whoever commits the crime of looting during the existence of a state of emergency . . . shall be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than three years nor more than fifteen years without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence."
I did a quick fact tally. During a state of emergency, the law mandates "hard labor" as punishment for all looters. And Angola Prison is the state symbol for chain-gang labor. Maybe the mayor wasn’t off his rocker. Two years ago, Katrina looters had been dealt double-digit prison sentences for stealing booze from a store, to "send a message."
Louisiana does do things differently. And exigencies can similarly affect how laws are applied in any state. The Constitution makes due process exceptions during times of war or in cases arising out of "public danger." Insurance policies contain clauses addressing force majeure, or “acts of God,” which can change the rules.
I do understand that leaders have to make choices for the greater good of those they serve. And this would not be the first time or the last that a man in charge delivered deliberate misinformation for what he believed was in the better interest of his community.