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Judges Suspend Prosecutions of Poor Suspects

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

For the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck nine months ago, criminal jury trials are underway in New Orleans. They began Monday in State District Court. But with about 5,000 cases pending, the justice system is far from normal. The storms damaged the criminal court building and the public defender's office. There are no longer enough lawyers to represent the rising number of poor defendants awaiting trial, reportedly, due to a lack of staff and funding. Still some say it's unacceptable that thousands of indigent criminal defendants have been left to languish within a system, many still without legal representation.

A number of judges are calling attention to the problem, including Judge Arthur Hunter. In February, he became the first to suspend prosecutions demanding that defender's offices be funded adequately.

Here's Judge Arthur Hunter in his own words.

Judge ARTHUR HUNTER (District Court Judge, New Orleans): I was a police officer in New Orleans, and I patrolled these streets, and I made my share of arrests. And I've come to realize that it's one thing to be tough on crime; it's another thing to be to be smart on crime.

But we're not being very smart on crime at all. Let me say, there were many people in New Orleans who believe, and wishfully thought, that when Katrina displaced the so called riff-raff, that the crime problem in New Orleans would be resolved. And that hasn't occurred. As a matter fact, just ask the city of Houston. I think there is an attempt now where the city of Houston is trying to send back those who have been accused of crimes from New Orleans back to New Orleans.

The public defender's office in New Orleans has been cited by U.S. Justice Department in recent study, in which it has concluded that it's constitutionally inadequate. But even before that study was authored and done, in February of '05, as a result of the public defender's office filing a motion in my court, that they could no longer represent indigent defendants - because of the severe funding crisis, and the fact they had to lay off most the attorneys - as a result, I halted all prosecutions involving the public defender's office in my court.

Victims cannot testify in court, and victims' family members cannot have their day in court, until indigent defendants have attorneys to represent them. So cases cannot proceed until that occurs. We have a Constitution, and as a society, we have a few questions we need to answer. Number one, whether or not the Constitution applies to only to those who can afford an attorney. And if we have soldiers dying in Iraq, for Democracy - to establish democracy in Iraq, and democracy also means a fair criminal justice system - then why not the same Constitution protection for indigent defendants in New Orleans?

We've had thousands of defendants spread throughout the entire state, because the local jail system is not working in New Orleans. And so, there are statutory laws. There is the Constitution. There are codes of criminal procedures ordinances(ph) in which someone has to arraign within a certain amount of time. And we knew this wasn't occurring. And so as judges, we have a duty to follow the law.

It was Chief Judge Calvin Jones who initially issued an order to investigate the status of the public defender's office in New Orleans, in which he commissioned Tulane University Law School Clinic and the Loyola University Law School Clinic, as well, to issue a report to him. I in turn also, using his order, did the same thing.

But as judges, we have a duty to make sure that the Constitutional rights of defendants are complied with. The entire criminal justice system is a microcosm, really, of New Orleans - in which we have serious infrastructure problems for city government, medical, education, housing, small business, et cetera, et cetera.

So, I would hope that the will is there. I think it's going to be combination of will, and providing the resources to do it. And having the intelligence to make sure that New Orleans comes back better.

GORDON: That was Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter. He says in New Orleans, most criminal defendants are typically represented by public defenders. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.