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2,500 Arrested Before Katrina Are Still in Limbo

At the heart of the problem is a public defender system almost too broke to function.

November 20, 2005|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Nearly three months after Katrina struck Louisiana, about 2,500 people arrested on minor charges before the hurricane struck are still in custody. A number of them have never been charged, many are being held beyond the time they were due to be released, and hundreds have never had a court hearing.

Their plight is one of many troubling issues facing the Louisiana court system, where funding for public defenders, among other problems, has been further imperiled by the storm.

When the storm struck, about 8,500 people being held in the New Orleans jails were relocated to facilities throughout -- and, in some instances, outside -- the state.

A small group of volunteer defense lawyers has filed writs and obtained the release of more than 1,800 of the evacuees, said Phyllis Mann of Alexandria, La., who has been coordinating the effort.

Still, Julie H. Kilborne, a Baton Rouge, La., defense lawyer also involved in the effort, said Friday she expected that the attorneys would have to litigate for many more weeks to secure the freedom of the hundreds still incarcerated on minor charges.

Over the last two weeks, in hearings in Baton Rouge, Judge Calvin Johnson, the chief criminal court judge from New Orleans, ordered more than a hundred people released. But the Orleans Parish district attorney's office appealed; a state appellate court and then the state Supreme Court stayed the release order.

Asst. Dist. Atty. Donna Andrieu asserted, among other things, that there was "just cause" for holding the detainees longer because Orleans Parish prosecutors, dislocated from their office, had not had sufficient time to make decisions on whether to charge various people.

Andrieu also asserted that among the reasons prosecutors had been unable to make decisions on whether to charge certain people was the breakdown in communication experienced by the New Orleans Police Department after the storm. Defense lawyer Neal Walker cited a breakdown of discipline -- including criminal activity -- in the city's police force.

The Louisiana Supreme Court is scheduled to consider the merits of the arguments early this week.

In a related development, the American Civil Liberties Union filed papers in a Louisiana federal court Thursday that provided disturbing accounts about 45 men and women who were incarcerated in the Orleans Parish Prison when Katrina struck.

"It was like we were left to die. No water, no air, no food. We were left with deputies that were out of control," said one woman, identified in court papers as "Inmate #19." She said the women eventually were abandoned by guards, left with nothing to eat or drink, and that many of them drank water out of trashcans.

Another prisoner, identified as "Inmate #41," said he saw "a few dead bodies, and [we] were told not to say anything or we were going to be like them."

The ACLU represents the prisoners in an ongoing federal class-action lawsuit that started years ago and led to some reforms.

Meanwhile, the state's public defender system, considered one of the worst in the nation, suffered a further blow when Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco announced plans to cut $500,000 from its budget.

On Saturday, state Sen. Lydia P. Jackson, a Shreveport Democrat, said she thought that about half of that money would be restored by the Legislature, which is meeting in emergency session.

Still, Jackson said, the local public defender offices are in "dire need" of additional funds because of revenue lost since the hurricane.

In addition, three-quarters of the public defenders in New Orleans, the state's largest city, have been laid off, and there is no expectation that they will be rehired soon.

Louisiana is the only state in the country that primarily finances its indigent defense through traffic fines. In the best of times, this source of funding is erratic.

There is a clear reason that Louisiana stands alone, said David Carroll, research director of the National Legal Aid and Defender Assn. "There is no direct correlation between the ability of a jurisdiction to garner money through traffic tickets and the resources required to provide adequate defense services to those unable to hire an attorney," Carroll said.

Moreover, since Katrina, those funds have slowed to a trickle, as law enforcement has been writing considerably fewer traffic tickets in the Bayou State.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision stating that Louisiana had failed to adequately fund a program to provide attorneys for poor defendants, as required by the constitution.

The ruling said that the obligation to provide a properly functioning indigent defense system, which represents 80% of the state's defendants, falls "squarely on the shoulders of the Legislature," which "may be in breach of that duty."

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