The criminal case involving alleged members and associates of a violent Gardere-area street gang known as the Big Money Block Boyz once again has landed in the lap of a state appellate court in Baton Rouge.
The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal was first introduced to the drug-related racketeering case in 2014 after 19th Judicial District Judge Trudy White, who later recused herself from the case, ordered the state to set aside $3 million to pay for lawyers she appointed to represent seven of the original 19 defendants.
The appeals court ultimately reversed White, calling the $3 million an “exorbitant” amount of money.
But retired Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Jerome Winsberg, who was appointed to preside over the case following White’s recusal, halted the prosecution two months ago after officials with the Louisiana Public Defender Board and East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defenders Office said there was no money to compensate the court-appointed lawyers.
On Friday, the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the Block Boyz case, filed papers asking the 1st Circuit to reverse Winsberg’s decision.
The District Attorney’s Office, like the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, has been arguing for months that the LPDB — by spending a third of its $33 million in state funding on capital murder cases to the financial detriment of local public defender offices — has created a public defender funding crisis in a calculated attempt to abolish the death penalty in the state.
“What is at issue and what has been challenged by the state is the spending priorities of the state and local boards which have resulted in a ‘manufactured’ crisis,” East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorneys Dana Cummings, who is the Block Boyz prosecutor, and Dale Lee, who is in the office’s appellate division, allege in their court filing. “The problem in (this) case is a lack of willingness to provide for the indigent defense of these defendants, not the lack of funds.”
“LPDB and local indigent boards may control their own ‘purse-strings’, but they should not control the progress of a prosecution when choosing to spend money elsewhere when that effectively halts a prosecution,” the prosecutors argue.
State Public Defender Jay Dixon has said the LPDB supplements the funding of local public defender offices, which get the bulk of their money from local court costs and fees, much of which is tied to traffic tickets.
Cummings and Lee want the 1st Circuit to reappoint the local public defender to represent the seven defendants in question, either directly or through the local office’s contract with conflict attorneys.
In mid-April, however, Mike Mitchell, East Baton Rouge Parish’s chief public defender, cited a shortage of funds in suspending his office’s contracts with conflict lawyers.
“Directing the indigent defender entities to provide counsel in this case is a legally binding and defensible position,” Cummings and Lee maintain.
They say there is no need for the district court or appeals court to put the brakes on the prosecution of the Block Boyz case.
“The instant case provides a clear example of state and local officials abdicating their responsibility to provide indigent defense while trying to shift the responsibility to the court system or to the Legislature,” Cummings and Lee contend.
“This Court should not allow the entire criminal justice system to grind to a halt when the parties charged with providing indigent defense make the blanket statement that they cannot fund this particular case,” they add.
LPDB officials and attorneys insist the board is spending its money in a fiscally responsible manner, and that prosecutors are merely trying to put the board on trial.
The charges in the Block Boyz case include racketeering, conspiracy, drug and gun offenses, attempted second-degree murder, and obstruction of justice.