New Orleans Judge May Free Dozens

Laura Parker, USA TODAY, April 1, 2007

An angry New Orleans judge says he will release 42 criminal defendants on April 18 because they lack adequate legal representation.

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter lashed out at the Louisiana Legislature for making a “mockery” of the criminal justice system and also warned that he will no longer appoint the beleaguered public defender’s office to represent poor criminal defendants in court.

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The judge, one of 12 in the Orleans Parish criminal courts, has been pushing for more than a year to reduce the pre-Katrina backlog of poor defendants who have been in jail awaiting trial without attorneys. He has suspended prosecutions, released four defendants charged with misdemeanors and ordered lawmakers and Gov. Kathleen Blanco to appear in his court to explain why they have not provided more money for the public defender system.

“The Louisiana Legislature has allowed this legal hell to exist, fester and finally boil over,” Hunter wrote.

{snip} David Pipes, said several of the defendants are charged with violent crimes.

The public defender’s office has one attorney assigned to each of the 12 sections of the Orleans criminal courts, according to Hunter’s order. Since Nov. 9, 2006, there have been 1,371 felony cases docketed in court, or an average of 114 cases per lawyer, Hunter’s order said. The attorneys have been assigned to an additional 1,153 cases involving defendants who appear in court but for which formal charges have not yet been filed.

State Rep. Danny Martiny, a Republican who chairs a legislative task force on indigent defense, said lawmakers have given the Orleans public defender’s office an additional $20 million in the past two years. He said the Legislature, which convenes April 30, will consider a bill that reforms the state public defender system.

“I have to be honest with you: I don’t think people look at the right to counsel as being a right, they look at it as a perk for the criminal,” he said. “That makes it harder to pass through the Legislature.”

Unlike other states, which use tax money to finance public defenders, Louisiana relies on traffic-ticket revenue. After Katrina, ticket revenue in Orleans Parish declined dramatically.

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