Katrina Causes Chaos in New Orleans Court System

Key evidence and key witnesses are missing as the New Orleans courts take stock in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Among thousands of cases in question is a murder trial in a high-profile school shooting.

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It will also be hard to recover lost evidence. Justice in New Orleans lies at the corner of Tulane and Broad Streets and much of it was submerged in the floods after Katrina. NPR's Libby Lewis reports this morning on the effort to reclaim criminal prosecutions.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

The buildings are clutched together like the fingers in a fist--the New Orleans Police Department, the District Attorney's Office, the jails and the 75-year-old rock of marble and granite that is the New Orleans criminal courthouse. District Judge Frank Marullo rode out Katrina and the flood from inside that courthouse.

Judge FRANK MARULLO: And I watched the water go up, and inside the building, there was about eight foot of water. And that engulfed a lot of the evidence, I'm sure.

LEWIS: The evidence room is behind steel doors at the bottom of the courthouse below ground level. Tens of thousands of items are stored there: guns, drugs, bloody shirts, DNA samples, photos. It's not clear what condition the evidence is in. Indeed, no one will say who if anyone has been in to see it. That includes the evidence from one infamous case, the gang-style murder of 15-year-old Jonathan Williams in April 2003. Williams was gunned down in a high-school gym during a student assembly. Three other students were injured in a blizzard of gunfire. James Tate is one of the defendants. His lawyer says his case highlights some of the problems ahead for justice.

Mr. KEVIN BEAUCHE(ph) (Defense Attorney): There's multiple guns that are involved. There are evidence that was seized from vehicles. There's approximately 200 exhibits that are involved in this case. Those were all in the basement of the criminal district court.

LEWIS: Defense lawyer Kevin Beauche says that could be a problem for prosecutors who want to try to link that evidence to his client.

Mr. BEAUCHE: For instance, they may bring in a gun that's untagged and I'm going to object to it on the grounds that they can't prove this is the weapon.

LEWIS: Before the storm, Beauche had lined up several witnesses to testify that his client wasn't even in the gym. Now he can't find some of the critical ones.

Mr. BEAUCHE: I've got most of my people, but, I mean, there's going to be people that have been hard to find. I'm not going to kid you on that.

LEWIS: New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan acknowledges his office also has hard work ahead and hard decisions to make about thousands of criminal cases. Which ones still have witnesses? Which have evidence that can still be used? Which don't? Jordan wouldn't talk about the Tate case or any other individual case, but he said the bad guys shouldn't be smug.

Mr. EDDIE JORDAN (New Orleans District Attorney): I know that there are some criminals who are very pleased right now, but I wouldn't be so quick if I were them to be happy about this set of circumstances because I do believe that some of those cases will be salvageable and I believe that we will be able to carry our burden of proof in some of those cases. And those people will end up behind bars hopefully for the rest of their lives if they're guilty of crimes like murder.

LEWIS: For now, officials have set up a makeshift jail in the old train station, and they're working with federal prosecutors to see which cases can be handled in federal court. The State Attorney General's Office is helping. They're planning a hotline to help track down victims and witnesses. Judges are huddling to figure out when and where they can restart the criminal courts. District Attorney Jordan is dealing with the basics of keeping his office together. He's had to lay off more than half his non-legal staff because the money from the city has stopped coming.

Mr. JORDAN: Many of them have lost everything including their homes, all of their clothing, food, and we're in pretty bad shape.

LEWIS: Still, Jordan says he's also trying to lay the groundwork for the future for getting prosecutors more involved in the community. He says the disaster has made room for creativity, room that was hard to find before.

Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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