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Judge on offensive against poor defense

Arthur Hunter's efforts to change New Orleans' public defender system upset many at a time of record violent crime.

June 27, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The exchange between judge and defendant happens many times every court day.

"You got a lawyer? Can you afford one?" Judge Arthur L. Hunter Jr. will say in his customarily affable way, which often puts the person standing in front of him at ease. "OK, I'm going to appoint you a public defender."

But the number of times Hunter has said those words and then seen the defendant receive subpar representation spurred him to take on the city's indigent-defense program.

Already troubled before Hurricane Katrina, the system has deteriorated into what Hunter called "unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking in basic professional standards of legal representation and a mockery of what a criminal justice system should be in a Western, civilized nation."

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge has held high-profile hearings into post-Katrina legal snafus and delays involving indigent defendants. In the last two months, he has suspended the prosecution of cases against 142 defendants and ordered the release of 20 who were still jailed.

In doing so, he propelled the city's cash-strapped and overburdened public defender program into the national spotlight. Its performance has become a controversial topic in a city battling record levels of violent crime.

Supporters view Hunter as a near-fanatic for fairness. Critics call his actions outrageous, and charge that he is a publicity-seeker more interested in protecting the rights of criminals than those of victims and their families.

The judge's recent ruling that suspended about 100 prosecutions and freed 20 was halted by an order from the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, after an appeal by Orleans Parish Dist. Atty. Eddie Jordan. The appeal is awaiting a ruling by the 4th Circuit.

Hunter is determined to press ahead. In recent weeks, he has notified more than 300 private lawyers of potential appointment to represent indigent defendants. And he has continued to call for increased state funding to reform the indigent-defense system.

On Sunday, the state Senate passed a bill that would create a statewide public defenders' board and increase funding for the state's indigent-defense program from $17 million to $27 million. The state House is expected to approve the bill before the legislative session ends Thursday. The bill then would be sent to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, for signing.

"People have to realize that to have an effective criminal justice system, each of the agencies have to be effective," Hunter said one recent afternoon after clearing his docket.

Hunter's actions have attracted praise and criticism.

Christine Lehmann, chief public defender for Orleans Parish, commended Hunter's stance even though her agency is at the center of his condemnation.

"It's criticism that we welcome and deserve," Lehmann said. "We are now an office that is reforming itself. It needs to be able to provide a proper level of representation to clients."

Robert Glass, a veteran defense attorney, called Hunter "very courageous" given that he was "not getting as much support from other judges as you might hope he would."

Criminologist Peter Scharf agreed: "With all the concerns about crime in the city, the easiest thing is to form an anti-crime lynch mob, and he's fought against it. It's a hard role in a city besieged by crime."

But critics accuse Hunter of grandstanding and using the issue to play politics.

"It is improper for the judge to use his position as a judge in a thinly veiled publicity stunt to generate media attention," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a citizens' watchdog group in Louisiana. "It is an inappropriate abuse of his judicial authority to pursue a political agenda in this way."

Goyeneche said Hunter should be focusing on other important cases.

The judge said that Goyeneche lacked "command of the facts and law" on issues before his court, "and is, frankly, out of his league on this matter."

Responding to questions via e-mail, Jordan, the Orleans Parish district attorney, said halting prosecutions caused delays for defendants, the state, witnesses, and victims and their families, and made it "far more difficult to obtain the trust and cooperation of the public at large."

Others have raised concerns that defendants released by the judge might commit other crimes.

"The community is in outrage," said Beverly Siemssen, president of Victims and Citizens Against Crime, whose daughter was murdered in 1990. "What's he solving by doing this, other than releasing people to commit crimes again?"

Gary Flot, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department, said statistics showed that 98% of those arrested by the New Orleans police force had prior arrest records.

Hunter underscored that none of the defendants he had released had been convicted of a crime, and said: "What I learned in law school was that everyone is innocent until proven guilty."

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