Friday, July 28, 2006

Judge Hunter Calls the State's Bluff

Judge Arthur Hunter has been making noise about indigent defendants left to waste away in the New Orleans judicial "system" and has threatened to take action, even issuing a subpoena (very politely) to Governor Blanco to testify in his court room about the lack of funding for indigent defense. It may be low on the list of local officials' priorities (Nagin thinks we are on schedule rebuilding the city and economy--see "Mayor finally breaks post-election silence") but these people in jail, some not charged but who have been in jail since before Katrina struck 11 months ago, do have rights. So Judge Hunter will release indigent defendants as they reach his courtroom:

Judge to release indigent defendants via (emphasis added)
Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa

Declaring a state of emergency within the criminal justice system, an Orleans Parish judge today said he will begin releasing poor defendants awaiting trial on a case-by-case basis Aug. 29, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

“It is a pathetic and shameful state of affairs [in which] the criminal justice system finds itself,” Judge Arthur Hunter ruled from his bench at criminal district court this afternoon. “The Constitution guarantees certain rights. Facts, reports and studies have concluded constitutional rights are being violated.”

Criminal district court has a backlog of 6,000 cases and growing, while the public defender’s office is barely recovering from going broke after Katrina and losing almost all of its attorneys. At least hundreds of poor defendants remain jailed without court-appointed representation.

Hunter released several orders and statements Friday, including a short yet stern response to the fact that Gov. Kathleen Kathleen Blanco did not appear in his court, despite his issuing a subpoena weeks ago.

Blanco sent Assistant Attorney General Burton Guidry to fight the subpoena, arguing that Hunter is without authority and jurisdiction to demand the governor’s attendance.

Hunter noted Blanco’s “non-appearance,” while quoting from famous case law that declares, “No man in this country is so high that he is above the law.”

Hunter said that statement is “black-letter law in this country for 124 years.”

Guidry and Assistant District Attorney David Pipes both said they will appeal Hunter’s ruling on inmate release.

Hunter said the only defendants released will be those who have not gone to trial, and that release does not mean the defendant is freed from any charges.

“The court has repeatedly warned for months the funding crisis within the public defender’s office and continued violations of defendants’ constitutional rights would lead to the release of defendants if the state of Louisiana did not adequately fund the public defender’s office,” Hunter wrote in his order.

Hunter said he takes no satisfaction in this ruling. “But, after 11 months of waiting, 11 months of meetings, 11 months of idle talk, 11 months without a sensible recovery plan and 11 months of tolerating those who have the authority to solve, correct and fix the problem but either refuse, fail or are just inept, then necessary action must be taken to protect the constitutional rights of people.”

Blanco did secure an additional $10 million for the state’s indigent defender program, doubling the previous statewide budget. But the Orleans Parish public defender’s office needs $10 million alone to provide services that adequately measure up to the constitutional right to representation afforded to poor defendants, said Denise LeBoeuf, chairwoman of the newly installed Orleans Parish Indigent Defender Board.

In another statement issued Friday, Judge Hunter said that with 6,000 cases looming, it is time for District Attorney Eddie Jordan to start “the process of determining which cases can be prosecuted.”

That means prosecutors must sort out which cases are doomed because of displaced victims, witnesses, police officers, or flood-ruined evidence, Hunter said. 


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