With increasing frequency over the past few years, prosecutors in East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes have been dusting off a little-known and rarely used state statute to secure indictments against large groups of defendants on racketeering charges involving murder, shootings and drug crimes.
The maneuver, something typically reserved for federal prosecutors, has put mounting pressure on some parish criminal justice systems ill-equipped to handle the load, particularly cash-strapped public defenders tasked with representing defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.
Racketeering laws, particularly the federal one, were originally created to fight the mob, but prosecutors also can use them to target groups of people in gangs or groups suspected of committing violent crimes. The law allows prosecutors to get at higher ranking individuals of an organization who might be more difficult to hold accountable for the group’s activities.
East Baton Rouge Parish’s chief public defender, Mike Mitchell, said Thursday that his office is at the bursting point.
The recent wave of complicated and expensive state racketeering cases also has fueled the debate over how to adequately fund public defenders in Louisiana.
“The state has to come up with a solution,” State Public Defender Jay Dixon said Friday. “The legislators are going to have to fix this one.”
Due to stagnant state assistance, 26 public defender districts operated last fiscal year at a deficit and covered their expenses using one-time allocations of money, a recent Legislative Fiscal Office report found. About 60 percent of a public defenders’ funds come from the state and the rest from fees levied by individual jurisdictions, but the local fees aren’t keeping pace with expenditures.
“Do we really believe in the constitutional right to counsel for everyone?” Mitchell asked. “If we do, then we have an obligation to fund it.”
In East Baton Rouge Parish, where the funding debate rages on, District Attorney Hillar Moore III’s office sought and obtained three multi-defendant racketeering indictments during an eight-month span from August 2013 to last spring.
Moore said in a recent interview that racketeering indictments won’t be the norm in East Baton Rouge, but he will seek them when the circumstances merit such action.
“That’s one of the tools we have and that’s what the law allows,” he said, noting that, whenever possible, he would like the limit the number of defendants in a racketeering indictment to about eight.
In Orleans Parish, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office also has obtained a handful of massive racketeering indictments against alleged gang members in the Crescent City. Cannizzaro has said he will use “every tool in my toolbox,” including the state racketeering statute, to convict criminals.
Last year, the New Orleans City Council designated a $233,000 pot of money for the defense of alleged gang members named in the indictments.
The most recent racketeering indictment in East Baton Rouge, returned in April, named 19 defendants in a 24-count case involving alleged members and associates of the violent Gardere-area “Big Money Block Boyz” gang.
“I knew what kind of additional strain it would put on the system,” Mitchell said of the massive case.
“These are extremely labor intensive cases, then you multiply that by 19,” Dixon added.
Moore offers no apologies for the number of defendants.
“I’ll take that criticism. This was a dangerous group of folks,” he said. “We’re not going to run away nor back down.”
The prosecution of the 19 defendants came to a screeching halt in mid-August when Baton Rouge state District Judge Trudy White, who has since recused herself from the case, issued a stay and ordered the state to set aside $3 million to pay for lawyers she appointed to represent seven of the 19 defendants.
White did so after being informed there was no money in the 2014-15 budgets of the Louisiana Public Defender Board or the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defender’s Office to compensate the appointed lawyers.
“We’re definitely not going to have the money next (fiscal) year,” said Dixon, who is in charge of the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
Moore noted that $3 million represents a third of his budget and is $1 million more than he gets from the state annually to pay the salaries of his roughly five dozen prosecutors.
Less than two weeks ago, a state appeals court in the Capital City called the $3 million an “exorbitant” amount of money and sent the case back to the 19th Judicial District Court with orders to lift the stay and reconsider how much funding should be provided to the attorneys for the seven indigent defendants.
“The State’s obligation ... is to provide the indigent defendant’s attorney with the ‘basic tools of an adequate defense,’ at no cost to the indigent defendant,” the 1st Circuit panel wrote Dec. 30, partially quoting a 2004 ruling by the court.
“This obligation does not require the State ‘to duplicate the legal arsenal that may be privately retained by a criminal defendant ..., but only to assure the indigent defendant an adequate opportunity to present his claims fairly.’ ”
Baton Rouge lawyer James Manasseh, whose firm was appointed to represent Christopher “Big Money” Finister, one of those charged with racketeering in the 19-defendant case, appeared perplexed by the appeals court decision.
“Are we supposed to dumb down the work we do so we don’t charge too much?” he asked rhetorically.
Manasseh called White’s ruling fair and said defending Finister, of St. Gabriel, will demand thousands of hours of work.
“The United States Supreme Court doesn’t expect us to do it for free,” he stressed.
Mitchell, who has 44 staff attorneys and 12 contract lawyers who he calls upon when his office has a conflict, questioned how an appellate court would quantify what constitutes an “adequate” defense.
“How do we decide what’s enough?” he asked.
As for the appeal’s court’s “legal arsenal” statement, Mitchell replied, “I don’t know what that means. I should be entitled to whatever I need to defend myself.”
Moore said the law is pretty clear that an indigent defendant is entitled to an adequate defense, not a “Cadillac” defense.
Local lawyer Jim Boren, who was appointed to represent Nathaniel Turner “Smurf” Turner, of Baton Rouge, in the 19-defendant racketeering case, said Turner has a right to an attorney and a speedy trial.
“This case has just bogged down,” he said. “It’s unfair.”
Boren said the Legislature needs to appropriate more money to handle indigent defense in the state.
“The state of Louisiana has to pay for it, not the private law firms,” he said.
Mitchell noted that lawyers are self-obligated to perform some pro bono work, or legal representation at no charge, but there is no mandatory requirement. The bar association recommends or suggests 50 hours a year per attorney, he said.
In the case of a 15-defendant, drug-related racketeering indictment returned by an East Baton Rouge Parish grand jury in October 2013, Mitchell said some lawyers stepped up to the plate to offer free legal services, excluding their expenses.
“Lawyers are giving a bunch,” he said.
In that case, eight of the defendants have pleaded guilty to drug charges and been put on probation. The remaining seven defendants, including alleged ringleader Cornelius Wilson, of Baton Rouge, still face racketeering charges that carry up to 50 years in prison.
A heroin-related racketeering indictment secured by Moore’s office in August 2013 has resulted in guilty pleas from three of the five defendants. Charges against a fourth defendant were dismissed. The remaining defendant is set for trial next month on drug and racketeering charges.
Christopher Varnado, of Baton Rouge, the group’s alleged ringleader, pleaded guilty to racketeering and drug charges and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Two others also pleaded guilty to racketeering and drug charges and received 10-year prison terms. The racketeering case involving Finister and his 18 co-defendants was randomly allotted to state District Judge Lou Daniel after White stepped aside.