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42 New Orleans inmates to be freed

The public defender's representation of poor defendants comes under heavy fire from a judge.

March 31, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Calling the Orleans Parish program for defending indigent clients "a mockery" of what a criminal justice system should provide, a criminal court judge ordered 42 defendants released and their prosecutions halted Friday.

Judge Arthur L. Hunter Jr., an outspoken critic of the public defender's office, charged that the financially strapped and overburdened program had failed to adequately represent poor defendants.

Hunter's release order won't be finalized until April 18, but he said he would no longer appoint the Orleans public defender to represent poor people in his courtroom.

Hunter also ordered that the public defender's office show at that time why it should not withdraw from the remaining 122 indigent defendant cases assigned to his courtroom and stop accepting such cases in his courtroom altogether. He also requested that the program account for its finances.

"Hurricane Katrina is no longer an excuse, and the state has a budget surplus," Hunter said.

"Indigent defense in New Orleans is 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 judge added.

A few of the defendants are accused of violent crimes such as armed robbery and sexual battery, but most face drug charges, program officials said.

The judge concluded that the district attorney's office should evaluate every indigent defendant's case in a timely fashion to determine whether victims, witnesses and physical evidence existed to go forward with a hearing or trial.

Such evaluations could help decrease the caseload, Hunter said.

In October, Hunter released four inmates facing drug possession charges because of the public defender's inadequate representation.

On Friday, the judge faulted the state Legislature for insufficiently funding the program and allowing "this legal hell to exist, fester and finally boil over."

Assistant Dist. Atty. David Pipes asked Hunter to stop his order. His office may appeal.

Officials in the public defender's office, who have long argued that inadequate funding has hindered them, commended Hunter's order.

"We appreciate the judge's concern over the state of affairs in the criminal justice system in New Orleans and Louisiana," said Stephen Singer, chief of trials for the office.

"We share his concern and appreciate he is trying to do what he can to stimulate the Legislature to take appropriate action."

Singer's colleague, Christine Lehmann, added: "What we can tell is that the judge is fed up, and we all need to come up with a solution. We cannot pretend anymore."

In hearings over the last several months, Lehmann and Singer, a law professor who took over as the public defender's chief of trials after Katrina, argued that they inherited a woefully deficient program.

Before the storm, the office had 42 lawyers. Immediately after, the office had 27 lawyers, 12 of them specifically assigned to traffic court.

Things soon got worse. Little money was being generated from traffic fines, the primary source of the indigent defense program's funding. Public defenders were not being paid. Client files and evidence were destroyed or lost. Lawyers worked three to a desk in cubicles, shared four computers and two phone lines, and had no fax machine.

Singer said the situation has improved. The office has moved, and each of its 36 lawyers has a desk and computer, and most have a phone. Also, a training program has been initiated. But lawyers remain overburdened.

"Things are much better, but we're not really where we want to be," Singer said. "We're not really providing satisfactory representation for all of our clients."

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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