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Justice System Faces a Deluge of Challenges

Times Staff Writer

It’s not just that 8,000 prisoners in and around New Orleans were evacuated in a hurry, often without a shred of paperwork, to 35 different locations. Nor that state and federal courts were shut down indefinitely, court employees and bail bondsmen were displaced and evidence perished.

It’s all of the above, plus the fact that Louisiana’s criminal justice system was beset by financial woes and other problems before Hurricane Katrina hit land.

To say the system faces daunting challenges in the coming months would be an understatement.

“I can’t think of a precedent anywhere near this scale,” said New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, who has been following developments in Louisiana. “Obviously, natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes cause a lot of death and damage, but I don’t recall an equivalent need to move an entire population of prisoners, coupled with a likely loss of court and arrest records.”

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Calvin Johnson, chief judge of the Orleans Parish criminal court, whose home near the New Orleans Fairgrounds was flooded, echoed that sentiment.

“I have no guidelines for this,” said the 58-year-old jurist, who fled New Orleans on Aug. 28, taking “three elderly ladies” with him. “I have to make it up as I go along. I have no book to look at.”

The crisis comes just five months after the Louisiana Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that the state’s indigent defense system, which represents 80% of the defendants, was fundamentally flawed.

The court said the obligation of providing a functional indigent system belongs “squarely on the shoulders of the Legislature,” which “may be in breach of that duty.” However, the ruling did not order any specific action, and no additional funding was provided.

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The hurricane recovery effort is only going to exacerbate the fiscal crisis, according to judges and legislators. The system is funded primarily by traffic ticket revenue, never a reliable source to begin with and now far less so.

“The financing of our system is suspect,” Supreme Court Justice Catherine Kimbell said Saturday in a telephone interview from her home in New Roads, La., 40 miles from Baton Rouge. “Our challenges are going to be much greater than the challenges we thought were significant” before.

“We know our system is important. But we do not want to begin to interfere with funding decisions that affect food, water, shelter [and] medicine for the people who have been displaced.”

Johnson, the displaced New Orleans judge, said he longed to take a walk in City Park near his home. “I get real sad” thinking about it, he said from his cellphone Saturday while driving near Baton Rouge.

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Still, he said he was focused on the task ahead. He said he hoped to resume court hearings by Friday, using a courtroom in the town of Plaquemine, a 94-mile drive from New Orleans.

While acknowledging that he faced “a tall job,” Johnson insisted, “We are going to operate the criminal district court and do it in conformity with the Constitution.... I assure you of that. We will ensure public safety is protected and the rights of the accused are protected.”

Johnson said he was able to recover computer drives from his courthouse and had set up a temporary office at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

However, much evidence in the old building where he worked at Tulane and Broad streets in New Orleans is “under water,” and there is no telling how much will be salvageable. Johnson said some evidence was sealed in plastic bags but that other items, including guns, were not and may be lost or destroyed.

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Judges, court personnel, lawyers, witnesses and police officers who might have played a key role in trials are all displaced.

Last week, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco issued an executive order suspending deadlines in court cases until Sept. 25. If that order is extended, defense lawyers are likely to argue that it violates a client’s right to a speedy trial.

“There is no provision in the Constitution that says it is suspended if there is a disaster,” said New Orleans defense lawyer Richard C. Teissier.

Even though no rain hit Shreveport, nearly 300 miles northwest of New Orleans, Paul Carmouche, who has been the district attorney there for 27 years, said Katrina already was having an impact on the legal system. Several hundred prisoners have been relocated there.

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“Our [indigent defense bar] is already overwhelmed with their regular caseload,” he said.

For the moment, virtually everyone is in triage mode. Inmates from waterlogged jails in the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemine and St. Bernard in many instances were taken in such haste that they came with no records.

“No one knew where they were or who they were or what they had been charged with,” said Keith Nordyke, a Baton Rouge defense lawyer who has been working to help identify the inmates.

By now, “they have a good solid count of who is where,” but in many instances officials do not know what the individual is charged with, Nordyke said.

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On Saturday, Pamela LaBorde, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said some jail evacuees were wearing colored wristbands, indicating their status and whether they were facing misdemeanor or felony charges or already serving time. But others weren’t.

She said the state has relied on computer databases, such as the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, to verify identifies.

Some inmates are being held in gymnasiums or classrooms. “Anything that has a roof and is safe, we put down a cot or a mattress,” LaBorde said.

Late last week, volunteer attorneys conducted preliminary interviews with hundreds of evacuated inmates.

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Phyllis Mann, a veteran defense lawyer in Alexandria, said she and three other attorneys interviewed about 200 inmates in the Rapides Parish jail. Some were facing murder charges; others were accused of lesser offenses.

Mann said several had told her harrowing stories about the days they spent in the Orleans Parish Prison after the hurricane. As water continued to rise, the inmates said guards moved them to cells on higher and higher floors, with some eventually placed in a top-floor gym.

“They told me that when the water got up to their chests, they knocked out windows in the gym and swam out of the jail,” Mann said.

Wearing orange jail jumpsuits, they were rounded up with other prisoners and then driven to Alexandria. She said the inmates feared that some of their former cellmates had drowned.

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Several attorneys, including Tom Walsh, the first assistant district attorney in Alexandria, said he expected that a special session of the Legislature would be called to deal with the pressing needs facing the state, including its legal system.

Said Baton Rouge attorney James E. Boren, past president of the Louisiana Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers, “A system that is already under great stress and not effective at all is going to get worse.”

Alexandria defense lawyer Mann, who has played a key role in pushing for reform, said she feared “all our work washed down the Mississippi. It’s a heartbreak.”


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