Sunday, May 13, 2007

Judge Orders Releases ...

From Paul Murphy, ABC26 News:

A New Orleans judge says the Louisiana Legislature is playing "Russian Roulette" with the rights of defendants who can't afford an attorney.

Judge Arthur Hunter ordered the release of dozens of criminal suspects while scolding lawmakers for not giving the public defenders office the money it needs.

Judge Hunter suspended the prosecution of 98 defendants and ordered 20, still held in jail, released.

The judge says some of them have been waiting for a public defender for up to 22-months.

The action comes on the heels of Hunter's order last month, freeing dozens of other poor defendants.

"That's wrong and we will appeal that," said Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan.

The releases are on hold while the DA takes his objection to the state's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.

"We don't think that the answer to the problem of no representation is to release people on the street," Jordan said. "They still have no representation at the end of the day."

Judge Hunter says the state legislature is making a "mockery" of the criminal justice system by not adequately funding indigent defense.

He wants lawmakers to use some of the estimated 3-billion dollar budget surplus to hire more public defenders.

"The steadfast refusal, even though there is a substantial budget surplus, strongly indicates the legislature has no intention to adequately fund indigent defense and will continue to play 'Russian Roulette' with the constitutional rights of indigent defendants," Judge Hunter wrote.

Twenty-six year old Bruce Dunham was in Judge Hunter's courtroom facing an illegal trespassing charge.

"Yeah, it bothers me," Dunham said. "How can you represent yourself. You can't represent yourself, only a fool would do that. They say that in the law."

Judge Hunter says his only option right now is to convince private attorneys to help pick up the slack.

The attorney for the Orleans Indigent Defender Board says appointing private attorneys to represent defendants who can't afford counsel is not a solution.

She says there aren't enough volunteers to handle the case load and if there is money to pay them, that money should go to the Indigent Defender Office.

"If the private bar is willing to do these cases for free, then all I can say is thank you," said attorney Christine Lehmann. "They're doing a great service. But they have the right to be paid. I am skeptical he will be able to find enough members of the private bar to do this for free.

There is a bill now moving the state legislature, calling for sweeping reforms in the state's indigent defender program.

The bill's author, Metairie State Representative Danny Martini is hoping lawmakers will support the reforms with additional dollars.


jbv's Competitive Edge 


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