An Orleans Parish judge erred this month when he ordered the release of seven allegedly violent inmates because of a lack of funds to pay for their defense, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office argued Friday in a bid to overturn the ruling by Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter.
In a plea to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, Assistant District Attorney David Pipes wrote that Hunter failed after months of court hearings to establish that a lack of available money for each of the seven defendants prevented them from receiving a constitutional defense, or to stipulate how much money was required.
“Rather than starting by examining if the private counsel (appointed to represent the seven) even needed additional funds,” the judge instead “made a cursory review of the status of the state and local Public Defenders Offices,” Pipes wrote, “and then jumped to the most radical relief that could be granted.”
That relief, which Hunter ordered on April 8, was to halt the prosecutions of the seven men — who face charges that include rape, armed robbery and murder — and order them freed.
However, he stayed the effect of his ruling pending an appeal that may ultimately be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court, so the seven inmates will likely remain behind bars for the time being.
According to Pipes, Hunter acted “prematurely in halting the prosecutions and failed to make individualized findings relative to the necessity of the available funds.”
In his 26-page plea, Pipes also suggested that Hunter orchestrated a drastic response to a statewide shortfall in public defense funding with the help of Tulane law professor Pam Metzger and private lawyers he hand-picked to handle the seven men’s cases.
Those lawyers all have claimed that to defend the men, they need money that is not available for investigators and other expenses.
Hunter, a former New Orleans police officer who has served nearly two decades on the criminal court bench in Orleans Parish, ordered similar releases following Hurricane Katrina, when the Public Defenders Office lay in tatters.
During another budget crisis for public defense in 2012, he appointed various state lawmakers and civic leaders with law degrees to represent a few dozen defendants, aiming to shine a spotlight on what he described then as a “constitutional crisis” in public defense funding.
The bulk of state funding for public defense in Louisiana comes from fines and fees levied on criminal defendants, with the majority of that coming from traffic tickets, which have declined steadily in number over the years.
In his April 8 order, Hunter ruled that the lack of state funding violated the seven defendants’ Sixth Amendment right “to a speedy and public trial” with “the assistance of counsel,” and that the resulting uncertainty over when their cases might move forward warranted their release.
“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?” Hunter wrote. “The defendants’ constitutional rights are not contingent on budget demands, waiting lists and the failure of the Legislature to adequately fund indigent defense.”
Hunter also said the “absence of a date certain” when money for their defense will become available warranted the release of the men because it violated the right to due process guaranteed in the 14th Amendment.
Hunter was following the guidance of a 2005 Louisiana Supreme Court decision on when judges can halt prosecutions because of a lack of adequate funds for indigent defense. The high court said a judge can stop a case “until he or she determines that appropriate funding is likely to be available.”
That decision came in a capital case, however, and Pipes argued that Hunter was following the wrong precedent. The judge also didn’t look far enough for available funds to represent the men, including from local government, Pipes argued.
Hunter’s failure to follow the law, not a lack of money, is the reason the seven cases now sit in limbo, Pipes wrote.
Metzger, who has spearheaded the effort to get the men released unless they can receive proper legal assistance, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the DA’s Office’s filing.
When the appeals court might rule on the case is uncertain.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.