New Orleans Runs Short on Public Defenders

A judge in New Orleans has released 42 inmates who were suspected of drug crimes. They lack legal counsel, so they can't be tried. The public defender's office has been in crisis since Hurricane Katrina.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

A New Orleans judge drew a line in the sand yesterday, when he stopped the prosecutions of 42 defendants. He ordered any of the men still in jail to be released. Before they're free, the case has to be reviewed, but the judge said he was tired of excuses and he promised to keep releasing defendants until there is money to get them defense attorneys.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN: If you find yourself in the New Orleans courthouse in an orange jumpsuit, the law promises you a public defender. That doesn't mean you'll get one.

Ms. PAM METZGER (Law Professor, Tulane Law School): Before the Katrina hit, the system really was already in intensive care, it just didn't know it. Katrina threw the whole thing into life support.

SULLIVAN: Tulane Law Professor Pam Metzger is working with the board to reform the public defenders office. She's seen some horror stories among the case files around her desk.

Ms. METZGER: Here is Ronald Dunn(ph), who was arrested on August 19, 2005. He wasn't arraigned until sometime in April of 2006. I remember just watching this young man tell the court that he'd never seen a lawyer.

SULLIVAN: Ronald Dunn is one of the 42 defendants whose case judge Arthur Hunter has now put on hold. Dunn has no lawyer. This summer, his drug possession case will be two years old. That's a long time if you have to spend it here at the city jail.

Ms. CHRISTINE LAYMAN(ph) (Public Defender): This is where the bulk of the defendants are held.

SULLIVAN: Public defender Christine Layman spends a lot of time in this gray building, the house of detention. It's so rundown since the hurricane, half the letters are missing on the sign. It says house of D, which is what everyone calls it now.

Ms. LAYMAN: They are still very poor conditions here for the defendant. I know when they first started in a court in here, they were actually lawyers fainting because there weren't any sort of facilities to actually adequately heat or cool the place. It's a real human tragedy.

SULLIVAN: Since the storm, the city hasn't had enough money to pay for public defenders. Layman says there are simply too many cases, thousands of them, and only 26 attorneys.

Ms. LAYMAN: And that means that we can't just say to a judge in a courtroom, we'll represent any poor person who comes in here, we have to say no. I'm sorry. I have to respect the people I already represent.

SULLIVAN: Judge Hunter says, if there isn't a defense lawyer, there isn't a case.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Group: The public defender is under attack - what do we do? Stand up fight back.

SULLIVAN: A crowd of protesters was thrilled with his ruling. But the new delay didn't sit well with city prosecutors like David Pipes(ph).

Mr. DAVID PIPES (Prosecutor, New Orleans): Our office is concerned about the delay of justice on behalf of the victims. The victims have just as big an interest and their case is going forward as the defendants do.

SULLIVAN: For now, the judge defense attorneys and prosecutors are all hoping the state will step in with funding. State Representative Danny Martini says a new bill looks promising and hopes it will pass by early summer. But he says getting money to pay for lawyers for poor people is tricky.

State Representative DANNY MARTINI (Republican, New Orleans): Members of the general public don't perceive that as a right; they think it's a perk that the prisoners get. When legislators run for election, you never see them bragging a public defender. You know, they want a DA and their sheriff and - because everybody wants to be tough on crime.

SULLIVAN: In the meantime in Judge Hunter's courtroom, the defendants needing lawyers keep piling up. Just yesterday, there were five more men in jumpsuits lined up on a bench. All of them said they can't pay for attorneys. The public defenders office says it can't pay for them either.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

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