A judge in New Orleans wants to free some defendants from jail, on the basis that the quality of their legal defense is so bad. And the public defenders' office agrees, saying, "The public defender system has been broken for decades."
As a result, defendants who are in legal limbo in New Orleans may soon find themselves walking away from their court dates. Since the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, cases have been backed up.
New Orleans Judge Arthur Hunter is so angered by the state of legal representation for the city's poor that he has ordered the release of as many as 42 criminal defendants who are in jail awaiting trial.
Hunter calls the public defender system a "legal hell" that has "festered" and is finally "boiling over".
On Friday, Judge Hunter issued an order in which he wrote, "Indigent defense in New Orleans is unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking the basic professional standards of legal representation and a mockery of what a criminal justice system should be in a western civilized nation."
Christine Lehman, counsel for special litigation at the Orleans Parish Public Defenders' Office, made essentially the same case in hearings before Judge Hunter, saying that an overwhelming caseload keeps the defender's office from properly representing defendants.
Melissa Block talks with Lehman, who says Hurricane Katrina exposed a system that was in decay for years.