In October 2005, less than two months after Hurricane Katrina struck, Pedro Parra-Sanchez was arrested for allegedly stabbing a man with a broken bottle during a fight. With the city's prison damaged by flooding, he was taken to a makeshift jail at the Greyhound bus station, then transferred to a correctional facility about 70 miles away, and later to a prison in southwest Louisiana.
That's where Parra-Sanchez sat for more than a year -- never seeing a lawyer or setting foot in a courtroom. At the time of the fight, he had been in New Orleans only six days: He'd left his family in Bakersfield, Calif., and come to help with the storm cleanup effort.
By law, the district attorney should have brought Parra-Sanchez to court to formally charge him within 60 days. Instead, "he disappeared," said Pamela R. Metzger, director of Tulane University's Criminal Law Clinic. "The system failed."
Parra-Sanchez's case is not unique in post-Katrina New Orleans. An untold number of people got "lost" in the prison system in the weeks immediately after the storm, Metzger said. Many are still among the 3,000 active criminal court cases. At least 85% of them qualify for representation by a public defender from the Orleans Parish Indigent Defender program.
The city's indigent defense system has long been plagued by negligent attorneys who provide haphazard and deficient representation. But in the months after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, the program spiraled into chaos: Funding plummeted; 15 lawyers quit the already thin legal staff; documents and evidence were lost or destroyed.
"None of the functioning institutions of government were there," Metzger said. Now, "the public defenders office is dealing with a massive influx of new arrests, and cannot go back to other cases."
Parra-Sanchez at least should have had access to a lawyer from the public defenders office, Metzger said.
She has helped to form the Katrina-Gideon Interview Project, a national coalition of law students and law professors. Gideon refers to Clarence Earl Gideon, whose landmark appeal in the 1960s led to a Supreme Court decision mandating that all criminal defendants be provided with a lawyer even if they were too poor to hire one.
Led by the Tulane law clinic and the Student Hurricane Network, the project aims to free indigent "Katrina prisoners" -- people who have served time but remain in jail because they haven't had legal representation.
1,800 cases under review
The students and lawyers are reviewing about 1,800 pre- and post-Katrina cases. They include people who have been imprisoned well beyond any sentence they might receive for such charges as probation violation, failure to pay a fine or prostitution.
Tulane law clinic students helped indigent clients before Katrina, but since the storm they've gone into overdrive. The Katrina-Gideon team's permanent members consist of Metzger, another full-time attorney and three law students. Attorneys from around the country have come to do pro bono stints.
They learned of Parra-Sanchez's case from other inmates: His name didn't appear on the sheriff's list of prisoners in custody because of a booking error.
Katrina-Gideon team member and student lawyer Sara Johnson, 23, says she becomes so outraged over the system's inefficiencies, and the treatment of indigent clients, that "some days, you want to throw something ... you want to go into the jail and just leave with them."
Leah Shaver, a woman in her 50s, is another of the team's cases. She has been in jail since July 2005 on prostitution and drug-possession charges. She was arraigned a week after her arrest. Two status hearings were called in her case earlier this year, but no public defender brought her to court until May -- nine months after her arrest. She is still incarcerated.
Iben O'Neal was charged with possession of heroin in October 2004 and was out on bail until spring 2005, when the court revoked his bond in error. In June of that year, O'Neal had a pretrial hearing. An August 2005 trial date came and went. His case was scheduled on the court calendar several times, but he was never brought to court. Instead, he spent another 14 months in jail without seeing a lawyer or a judge.
The public defenders office had no file on O'Neal, Metzger said, "not a scrap of paper" since 2004. Her team secured O'Neal's release on Oct. 31, 16 months after his last court appearance.
Volunteered to help
The first time Parra-Sanchez spoke with a lawyer was on Nov. 17, when Metzger interviewed him in jail.
Parra-Sanchez, a legal U.S. resident from Mexico, had initially volunteered with a hurricane-relief effort sponsored by his church, according to court documents. But his limited English skills disqualified him for volunteer work; instead, he signed on as a paid laborer with a tree-removal company. Less than a week later, he was in jail.
Johnson and fellow Tulane law senior Alex Wells wrote the motion for Parra-Sanchez's arraignment.
Before the hearing, Wells, a 29-year-old former political consultant turned attorney, Johnson, Metzger, Parra-Sanchez and the court-appointed interpreter rehearsed and did role-playing in the hallway outside the courtroom of Judge Darryl Derbigny. Then Wells took his place at Metzger's side to question Parra-Sanchez about what he described as "a human tragedy."
Speaking through the courtroom interpreter, Parra-Sanchez said he repeatedly asked prison guards and a prison psychologist when he would be brought to trial. His wife, Alma, tried to call the public defender, but the office phone was not working, Wells said.
When Parra-Sanchez did not show up in court for arraignment in May, Derbigny issued a warrant for his arrest, even though he was already in jail.
The father of four wept as he spoke of the hardships his imprisonment had had on his family.
His wife was forced to move from a rented house to a trailer park. She sold her husband's tools to pay bills and depleted the family's savings. The bank repossessed Parra-Sanchez's truck. And his eldest daughter left home to help alleviate some of the family's financial burden.
"It was very difficult mentally," Parra-Sanchez told the court as he dabbed his eyes with a tissue.
"I asked for help, but nobody would give me" any, he added in later testimony.
Assistant Dist. Atty. Greg Thompson called the Parra-Sanchez case "a snafu" and, during the defendant's arraignment, formally apologized on behalf of the state for his "prolonged incarceration."
A judge freed Parra-Sanchez the Friday before Thanksgiving. His arraignment finally took place on Nov. 28, and a local synagogue donated money for Parra-Sanchez's train journey home to Bakersfield on Nov. 29.
He has since consulted Bakersfield attorney Daniel Rodriguez about possible civil rights litigation against law enforcement agencies in New Orleans.
Derbigny is slated to hear a defense motion to drop Parra-Sanchez's case on the grounds that his constitutional right to a speedy trial has been violated.
"I have no idea whether this man is guilty or innocent," said Metzger. "What I do know for sure is that the state is guilty for depriving this man of his bill of rights for the last 13 months."
Stephen Singer, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans law school and the lead trial counsel for the public defenders office, said his agency welcomes input from the Katrina-Gideon group because "we can use all the help we can get." But he said indigent defense needs more than the spot treatment the Katrina team provides.
"That helps individual clients, but it doesn't help us solve the problem," Singer said. "What we really need to do is fix the public defenders office."