In a potentially blockbuster ruling, an Orleans Parish judge on Friday ordered seven indigent inmates released from jail because of a lack of state money for attorneys to represent them amid a squeeze on public defense funding in New Orleans and across Louisiana.
However, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter stayed his order, which also included a suspension of the men’s prosecutions, pending an appeal from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office. Assistant District Attorney David Pipes told Hunter an appeal is coming, and Hunter gave him 10 days.
The seven men will remain behind bars pending the outcome of that appeal.
All of them face serious felony charges — including murder, armed robbery and aggravated rape — and all have been deemed indigent. Most have spent more than a year behind bars, going months without legal help on their cases, attorneys said.
Hunter ruled that the lack of state funding for the seven men’s defense violated their Sixth Amendment rights and that the resulting uncertainty on when their cases might move forward warrants their release.
“The defendants’ constitutional rights are not contingent on budget demands, waiting lists and the failure of the Legislature to adequately fund indigent defense,” Hunter wrote in his 11-page ruling, portions of which he read from the bench.
“We are now faced with a fundamental question, not only in New Orleans but across Louisiana: What kind of criminal justice system do we want? One based on fairness or injustice, equality or prejudice, efficiency or chaos, right or wrong?”
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the district attorney “believes that releasing defendants charged with serious acts of violence poses a clear and present danger to public safety, and he intends to appeal the ruling.”
Spokesman Christopher Bowman added, “It appears that the judge’s ruling declares that a legislative act — namely the most recent budget — violates the Louisiana Constitution.”
Tulane Law School professor Pam Metzger, who is representing all seven in their bid for release, said she was “thrilled that the judge appreciates the extraordinary constitutional obligations of providing poor people with counsel and due process of law.” She said she was disappointed that Hunter stayed his ruling but that attorneys would continue pressing to free the men.
In addition to Metzger, each of the men has an attorney appointed by Hunter. But in his ruling, Hunter said the appointment of private attorneys without any state money available for early witness and defendant interviews, filing motions and strategizing “makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.”
Hunter was following directions laid out in a 2005 Louisiana Supreme Court decision on when judges can halt prosecutions because of a lack of adequate indigent defense funds. The court said a judge can stop a case “until he or she determines that appropriate funding is likely to be available.”
The “absence of a date certain” when that money will come, Hunter found, also violates the right to due process guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Louisiana Constitution’s edict for the Legislature to “provide for a uniform system for securing and compensating qualified counsel for indigents.”
The seven men are:
Alex Bernard, 48, facing charges of first-degree robbery, simple battery and two counts of aggravated assault. According to his attorneys, he’s been without legal help for more than three months.
Darrian Franklin, 40, who was indicted early last year on a second-degree murder count and obstruction of justice. He is accused of killing 35-year-old Trenton Gary in March 2014 in Algiers.
Henry Campbell, 21, who was indicted three years ago on a first-degree rape charge and now faces additional counts of obscenity and battery of a correctional employee during his time behind bars.
Malcolm Smith, 23, who is charged with armed robbery with a firearm and has remained behind bars for more than a year, including close to four months without counsel, according to Metzger.
Donald Gamble, 28, facing two counts of armed robbery and a charge of aggravated assault with a firearm, among other charges.
Joshua Vaughn, 22, who is charged with armed robbery, armed robbery with a firearm, possession of a weapon by a felon and illegal possession of a stolen vehicle.
Benny Walker, 32, facing a host of charges that include two counts of attempted armed robbery with a firearm. According to his attorneys, he’s been jailed for 491 days, including more than three months without counsel.
Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office had turned away the seven cases, citing a severe budget shortfall, bloated workloads and the loss of several experienced attorneys in his office.
Hunter, who has taken drastic measures during past funding shortfalls at the Public Defenders Office — he ordered the release of several inmates after Hurricane Katrina — doled out the seven men’s cases to private attorneys, who promptly sought a halt to the prosecutions and the men’s release. They said they can’t do any work on the cases unless they get money to pay for investigators and other expenses.
Hunter’s ruling came after a series of hearings in his courtroom that began in November with testimony from Bunton and Jay Dixon, who heads the Louisiana Public Defender Board, among others.
They testified that indigent defense in Louisiana is facing a crisis because of a system in which local offices are funded largely through fines and fees leveled on criminal defendants, mostly for traffic violations. Those revenues have slid steadily over the past several years, in some parishes more than others. All told, almost a dozen district public defenders across the state have instituted austerity programs.
In New Orleans, that has meant a hiring freeze since last summer and, beginning in January, a refusal by Bunton’s office to accept appointments in serious felony cases — now at 110 and counting — because of a lack of experienced attorneys to handle them, according to Bunton.
“Obviously, the charges involved in these cases are really serious, so I do think folks should be concerned about public safety,” Bunton said Friday. “We wouldn’t need to be in this position if (the state) provided the resources that are necessary under the constitution. You can only prosecute as fast as you can defend, and if you can’t defend, you can’t prosecute.”
The news of Hunter’s order caught Myra Gary off guard. Franklin is accused of killing her brother on March 12, 2014. The men knew each other, she said.
“They were coming from Wal-Mart. They tried to rob him, and they had a scuffle in the car. He jumped out of their truck and ran. They shot him while he was running,” she said.
Trenton Gary had a son who is now 17, she said.
Myra Gary, who is a paralegal in Atlanta, said she understands due process but not what happened Friday.
“It is horrible. He was killed two blocks from my mother’s house,” she said of her brother. “It’s just hard to hear this guy’s going to be walking the streets because of a technicality. How are we violating their constitutional rights when they took someone’s life? They violated their own rights by breaking the law.”
The defenders’ funding troubles may be getting even worse. In Baton Rouge, lawmakers grappling with the state’s deep budget morass have threatened deep cuts in the $33 million in annual state funding that has supplemented local revenue, making up about a third of the overall funding for indigent defense across the state.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has in the past endorsed a halt to prosecutions until adequate funding becomes available. But it has stopped short of ordering action by the Legislature.
At a recent hearing, Metzger described an “abject state of financial crisis. There is no money to fund these defenses. ... The cause of the delay rests entirely with the state. The Legislature has been on notice not simply for weeks or months or years but for decades.”
In a legal filing last week, however, Cannizzaro’s office described the private attorneys seeking to be relieved from the cases as bent on “nothing less than anarchy” by pressing for the defendants’ release and a halt to their prosecutions, while “hoping for a paycheck” at the expense of justice.
“They are seeking to bring down a system they disagree with rather than protecting the rights of those individuals this court has appointed them to represent,” Pipes wrote.
A statement from Mayor Mitch Landrieu called Hunter’s ruling “a miscarriage of justice on all sides” and urged the judge “for the sake of the victims and their families” to “reconsider putting alleged murderers back on the streets, like Darrian Franklin.”
“The state needs to live up to its obligation by fully funding the public defender, and the judge should continue to work on getting the State to appropriately fund its responsibilities,” the statement read.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.