The prosecution of alleged members and associates of the violent Gardere-area Big Money Block Boyz gang was halted Monday by a judge who cited lack of state funding for court-appointed attorneys in the 2-year-old case that once counted 19 defendants.
Retired Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Jerome Winsberg, over a prosecutor’s objection, also significantly reduced the bail of six of the remaining 13 defendants who still were jailed at the time of Monday afternoon’s hearing. Four of the 19 defendants have pleaded guilty, and charges against two others have been dismissed.
Winsberg’s decision to halt the drug-related racketeering prosecution came despite an impassioned East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Dana Cummings telling the judge that the state’s public defender funding crisis has been carefully orchestrated by the Louisiana Public Defender Board itself.
Cummings, who is prosecuting the Block Boyz case and said she will appeal Winsberg’s ruling, argued that the state board spends a third of its $33 million budget on private attorneys to handle only death penalty cases, which total less than 1 percent of all criminal cases in the state. That money, she said, should be going to local public defender offices such as the one in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“They have broken our local public defenders,” Cummings alleged. “The state board is manipulating money … to get rid of the death penalty.”
The state board, she added, has sufficient money to fund the local public defender offices across Louisiana but “those sufficient resources are being funneled to the capital defense people.”
Louisiana Public Defender Board attorney Maggie Broussard told the judge the board has not misspent its money, and she accused Cummings of “trying to put the LPDB on trial.”
Jay Dixon, the state’s public defender who attended Monday’s hearing, also dismissed Cummings’ allegations afterward.
“It’s false. It’s just not true,” he said.
Cummings actually called her boss, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, as a witness during the hearing. Moore said his office deals with budget issues as well.
Afterward, Moore said his office was disappointed by Winsberg’s ruling.
“He was placed in a very difficult position by the maneuvering of the LPBD in Baton Rouge and throughout the state. His hands were significantly tied,” Moore acknowledged. “This day has been planned by the LPBD and has been coming for some time.
“Public safety is now at risk due to today’s halt in prosecution and potential release of these defendants. I am afraid for what this ruling and others to come will mean for the safety of our community,” he added.
Brenden Craig, the court-appointed attorney for Demarcus Smith, of Baton Rouge, in the Block Boyz case, argued to Winsberg that the case had to be halted.
“The appointed attorneys in this case are entitled to be paid,” Craig said. The judge reduced Smith’s bail from $275,000 to $50,000.
Winsberg was appointed to handle the case after state District Judge Trudy White recused herself.
In mid-2014, White ordered the state to set aside $3 million to pay for lawyers she appointed to represent seven of the original 19 defendants, but a state appeals court later reversed her and called that amount “exorbitant.”