Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro had kept to the sidelines as advocates pressed this week for the release of seven pretrial inmates being held in jail because of a lack of money to pay for their defense. But in a tart legal filing Thursday, a senior prosecutor in Cannizzaro’s office minced few words in opposing the latest volley in a widening legal tangle over public defense funding in New Orleans and statewide. His message: Suck it up.
Assistant District Attorney David Pipes lambasted the private attorneys who were appointed to represent the seven defendants after Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office turned the seven away, citing a shortage of capable lawyers.
The private attorneys want to be relieved from their assignments, citing a lack of funding to support their efforts, and say the defendants should be freed.
All seven face serious felony charges — including murder 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.
Pipes described the private attorneys 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.
The attorneys “have devoted their time, their resources and their efforts to conducting hearings and presenting arguments on why they will not do their job,” Pipes wrote. “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 also theorized that what some have decried as a funding crisis may be “a manufactured stunt intended for political effect, a symptom of gross mismanagement on all levels of state government, or an unfortunate side effect of our current economic climate.”
In any case, he argued, the lawyers have an obligation to represent the men regardless of whether they can anticipate being paid for their efforts.
Pipes’ attack was met with bitter rebukes from the attorneys who were appointed by Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter to represent the seven men.
Tulane University law professor Pam Metzger, who is spearheading the plea for the men’s release, noted that the state Supreme Court has endorsed a halt to prosecutions “if the trial judge determines that adequate funding is not available” for a defense.
The attorneys for the seven men argue they can’t adequately represent them without money for investigators and overhead.
“This is a tragic situation. It’s tragic for these men. Quite frankly, it’s tragic for the state and the victims. It’s tragic for the court, which has an obligation to sit and do justice and can’t do justice when the Legislature starves the judicial system,” Metzger said.
“To suggest this is in any way manufactured, hyperbolic, mismanagement or a stunt is simply not appropriate and not worthy of the district attorney for this parish.”
At the heart of the legal conflict is this issue: At what point does the state’s failure to fund lawyers for poor people trump an attorney’s professional duty to represent some clients regardless of their ability to pay? According to the attorneys for the seven men, that point has long since been passed.
Bunton last summer instituted a hiring freeze and other austerity measures because of a budget shortfall spurred in part by a cutback in state funding for his office.
His office began turning away some cases in January, most of them for serious felonies, citing attrition in the ranks of experienced attorneys in the office. Since then, his office has refused or withdrawn from more than 100 cases.
The situation appears to be getting worse, Bunton testified this week. Statewide, nearly a dozen public defenders offices are under similar austerity plans, cutting back staff and turning away cases or putting poor defendants on waiting lists, according to the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
Jay Dixon, who heads the state board, cites a long-term decline in traffic ticket revenue, the primary source of public defense funding in Louisiana. Meanwhile, Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed a 62 percent cut next year in the $33 million that has gone annually to supplement local revenue for public defenders.
Among the seven defendants seeking release in Hunter’s courtroom is Alex Bernard, who faces robbery, simple battery and aggravated assault charges. His attorney, John Adcock, described the response from Cannizzaro’s office as “the latest chapter in an attempt to skew the argument on proper defense funding for poor people in this state. The book is long on the terrible history here.”
Adcock cited his extensive history of pro bono advocacy on behalf of various clients, including Glenn Ford, who was exonerated and freed from death row after 30 years shortly before his death last summer from lung cancer.
“To say that I’m just being selfish in filing these motions is wrong,” Adcock said. “It’s unethical and a complete misreading of the law. We are merely following procedures laid down by the Supreme Court.”
Nick Trenticosta, who was appointed by Hunter to represent Joshua Vaughn on armed robbery and stolen auto charges, asked Hunter to throw out Pipes’ motion entirely. “I’ve been a professional licensed attorney for 29 years. I have never seen a pleading like this, ever,” Trenticosta said.
Hunter declined to take any action Thursday, though he is expected to decide next week whether to halt the prosecutions and release any of the seven men.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.