READ: Why Crime Survivors Who Refuse to Testify Should Not Be Jailed

By Sameer Rao May 05, 2017

Despite the tremendous physical and emotional pain she endured, journalist Deborah Cotton chose not to testify against the young Black men who shot her and 18 others during a Mother’s Day 2013 second line parade in New Orleans. She instead turned her attention to advocacy for crime victims and incarcerated people alike, criticizing the tough-on-crime policies and economic disenfranchisement that wreak havoc on Black communities in New Orleans and beyond.

Before her Tuesday (May 2) death from long-term health issues caused by her gunshot wounds, Cotton wrote an essay that was published by The New York Times yesterday (May 4). In it, she argues against jailing crime survivors who don’t testify.

"If you are Black and from the community, do you pick up the phone and report the crime?" writes Cotton, who is Black. "Do you open the door when the police come to ask if you witnessed the crime? What will the prosecutor do to you if you don’t cooperate?"

Cotton references these recent examples of New Orleans prosecutors arresting crime survivors: 

Court Watch NOLA, a community group of volunteers who monitor New Orleans’ criminal courts, issued a report showing that in 2016 alone, our prosecutor arrested and jailed six victims after they refused to come to court to testify for the prosecution. Four of these victims were survivors of attempted murders, one victim was a rape survivor, and the last survivor had a gun aimed at her. Our district attorney’s office tried to arrest nine other crime victims for failing to cooperate, but could not find them.

She later frames these examples in the context of police abuse in the city’s Black communities:

New Orleanians have legitimate cause for concern when reporting a crime. Our police department has been under a federal consent decree since 2012, which means our police department’s track record for civil rights abuses has been so bad that the federal government has had to intervene. If we can’t depend on our police force and our prosecutors to not attack or take advantage of us, how are we supposed to trust them with the "who did it" information that could get us killed?

Cotton closes the essay by reflecting on mass incarceration and her wish for prosecutorial reform: 

I also didn’t want to be part of the machine that sent men from my tribe to prison. As a black woman working on criminal justice reform, it breaks my heart to watch scores and scores of black and brown men in orange jumpsuits going into the tunnel of no return.

We need our prosecutors to be community prosecutors. We need prosecutors who will work with us so that we can build trust. We must believe that our prosecutors see lasting public safety as the end goal, not jail. District attorneys must promise to listen to the needs and desires of crime victims and never ever arrest a survivor who is too scared to testify.

An obituary from The New Orleans Advocate notes that Cotton kept in touch with her assailant, Akein Scott, after he received a life sentence for the shooting. Her criminal justice and journalism work earned support from many in the Crescent City’s advocacy and second line communities. 

Watch a 2012 video below of Cotton discussing her professional path and New Orleans on Park Triangle Productions’ interview series, "The Angle":