With little else he could do after learning that the defendant in a murder case had been shipped off to state custody and couldn’t make it for the start of his trial Monday morning, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich took to griping at prosecutors.
The judge complained of wasted taxpayer money and ordered the District Attorney’s Office to have multiple trials queued up at the start of each week.
In another Orleans courtroom, meanwhile, a scheduled murder trial in the case of Emma Raime, accused of killing several of her husbands, was pushed off by several months on Monday. The lead prosecutor, having just finished up another murder trial down the hall, asked for more time.
These kinds of delays, known as continuances, are too much the norm in the Orleans Parish courthouse, with judges on average setting different trial dates more than five times before defendants actually get their day in court, according to a report released Monday by a courthouse watchdog group.
Reducing those delays could trim the Orleans Parish jail population by some 240 pretrial inmates — or about 13 percent of the occupied beds, Court Watch NOLA found.
Beating a drum against a “culture of continuances” in the Orleans Parish justice system, the report placed equal blame for trial delays on prosecutors and defense attorneys, based on a scoring system that gauged their readiness for court proceedings.
“What stands out for me is the fact that justice delayed is justice denied,” Court Watch NOLA Director Simone Levine said. “It stops victims from getting closure. ... It stops police from getting out on the street. It causes defendants to plead guilty if they’re still incarcerated.”
Court Watch NOLA deploys a platoon of volunteers who sit with notepads, tracking the goings-on in the court’s 12 criminal sections and Magistrate Court, although they do not sit in on every courtroom each day.
Among the most frequent reasons for trial delays in the second half of the year were unprepared or unavailable defense attorneys and defendants who were in custody but not “produced” for trial, the report found.
Among the latter was 77-year-old Seabon “Tom” Gibson, who was convicted in August of obstruction of justice but faces a new murder trial in the 2014 stabbing death of his longtime girlfriend after a jury deadlocked on the murder count.
Zibilich said Gibson had been shipped out to state custody to serve a 27-year sentence on the obstruction count. Why he wasn’t delivered to Zibilich’s courtroom Monday wasn’t immediately clear.
Among other contributors to the courthouse backlog, the report found, was a recent uptick in New Orleans Police Department officers being unavailable to testify.
The report credits the dozen Criminal Court judges with progress in trimming long-bloated dockets — echoing the findings of a largely positive recent scorecard by the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Still, it recommends that the court enact a policy to limit continuances and fund a “case flow management” study to streamline the court’s dockets.
Statistics from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office show that in 2014, the average felony case took 194 days to reach a resolution, according to the report. Those numbers differ from an MCC report that found the median time for felony cases to reach a resolution was 117 days — not far off the national rate of 111 days.
The MCC tracks the time not from arrest but from when cases are allotted to a particular judge. The MCC also doesn’t count the time in which defendants are at large or declared mentally incompetent or when pretrial appeals leave their cases in limbo.
The Court Watch NOLA report tied court delays directly to the jail population, noting that the city is on the hook to pay for all pretrial detainees. It cited an American Bar Association standard that 98 percent of felony cases should be resolved within a year; the MCC found that New Orleans had only a 70 percent race in 2013.
If Orleans Parish held to the ABA standard, the number of pretrial jail detainees would shrink by as much as 239, the report found.
The report can be viewed at courtwatchnola.org.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.