Inmates on Brink of Release Due to Crunch

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – An Orleans Parish criminal judge ordered the release of seven indigent inmates who face serious felony convictions because the state cannot afford their representation.
     In handing down his ruling, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter stayed his order for ten days pending an appeal from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office. During that time the men will be kept in jail.
     All seven inmates face felony criminal charges, including murder, armed robbery and aggravated rape. Most were held in jail for hundreds of days before having their first meeting with an attorney.
     Hunter ruled that a lack of state funding for representation violated the men’s Six Amendment rights, and that a lack of certainty about funding in the future warrants their release from jail.
     “These defendants are currently being deprived attorneys to the extent that raises serious concerns whether they will ultimately receive effective assistance of counsel,” Hunter said in his 11-page ruling Friday, parts of which he read directly from the bench.
     “There are a number of responsibilities an attorney may be required to undertake that must be completed long before trial if the defendant is to benefit meaningfully from right to counsel,” Judge Hunter said.
     “These duties include interviewing the defendant and witnesses while events are fresh in their memories, preserving physical evidence important to the defense, and locating potential defense witnesses,” Hunter’s said. “… Moreover, there are rules for pretrial preparation and pretrial motion procedure, which must be engaged within certain time limitations.”
     The importance of prompt pretrial investigation and preparation is essential, Hunter said, “and the serious probability that without attorneys and pretrial decisions not being made, these defendants are currently being deprived attorneys to the extent that raises serious concerns whether they will ultimately receive effective assistance of counsel.
     “This is especially true for defendants in jail, who are virtually powerless to obtain a lawyer on their own or to begin working on their own defense. The harm from inaction over a period of time is cumulative.
     “The defendants’ attorneys have demonstrated that they cannot effectively represent their clients without adequate funding and resources.
     “The court has no difficulty concluding the defendants’ constitutional right to assistance of counsel is being violated,” Hunter said.
     A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the district attorney “believes that releasing defendants charged with serious acts of violence poses a clear and present danger to public safety, and that Cannizzaro intends to appeal the ruling.”
     Tulane Law School professor Pam Metzger, who is representing all seven inmates’ request for release, told Courthouse News on Monday that she was “thrilled that the judge took a stand on behalf of poor people and their rights under the constitution.”
     She said she was disappointed Hunter stayed his ruling, but that attorneys would continue pressing to free the men.
     In addition to Metzger, each of the men has a private attorney appointed by Hunter. But in his ruling, Hunter noted that the appointment of private attorneys without any state money available for early witness and defendant interviews, filing motions and strategizing “makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.”
     Hunter was referring to a 2005 Louisiana Supreme Court decision on when judges can halt prosecutions because of a lack of adequate indigent defense funds.
     The court in that case said a judge can stop a case “until he or she determines that appropriate funding is likely to be available.”
     Hunter additionally found that an “absence of a date certain” when that money will come violates the right to due process guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Louisiana Constitution’s edict for the Legislature to “provide for a uniform system for securing and compensating qualified counsel for indigents.”
     In a court document filed two weeks ago, District Attorney Cannizzaro suggested private counsel should step up their civic duty and represent indigent clients they are appointed for free.
     “Whether or not a private attorney defends indigent men and women should not depend on whether that attorney gets paid,” the document filed two weeks ago on behalf of Cannizzaro said. “The rules of professional conduct and for that matter basic humanity would frown on anyone walking away from someone who needed help simply because they would not profit from doing the work of their chosen profession.”
     Hunter appointed private attorneys to the seven inmates when it became apparent the public defender’s office did not have the money to take them. The private attorneys promptly sought to stop the prosecutions and asked for the men’s release. The attorneys said they can’t do any work on the cases unless they get money to pay for investigators and other expenses.

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