A local watchdog group that tracks the workings of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court issued a wide-ranging report Tuesday that raises alarm over the fact that evidence from criminal cases remains stored in the courthouse basement, a scene of post-Hurricane Katrina flooding and destruction.
In its annual report, Court Watch NOLA called on the city and Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell to form a working group to make plans for moving the evidence to a higher, climate-controlled location.
“We are extremely concerned with the fact evidence is still downstairs in the basement,” said Simone Levine, executive director of the group. “We cannot stand the chance in this city of having that evidence flooded again.”
In an interview, Morrell acknowledged that about a third of the criminal evidence under his guard remains at ground level, either in the courthouse basement or in a nearby warehouse.
Morrell said he’s pitched an idea to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to move the evidence — consisting of everything from guns to rape exam kits — to the shuttered Orleans Parish Prison building adjacent to the courthouse.
He said he has yet to receive a response.
In the meantime, Morrell said, he has secured a refrigerator from the New Orleans Police Department that will house scores of rape kits now sitting on shelves.
“Hurricane season’s coming, and we always get worried,” Morrell said. “We don’t have any room available for anything. It’s up to the city to provide us space for our evidence.”
The courthouse is owned and maintained by the city.
“The city supports a well-functioning criminal justice system and is reviewing the recommendations in the report,” Landrieu spokesman Hayne Rainey said in a statement.
A $21 million NOPD complex for storing and processing criminal evidence is slated to open in 2018, funded largely through FEMA, according to the city. Morrell, however, said the space the city has offered him in the five-story building falls short of what he needs.
Evidence storage was among several issues addressed in the report, which tabulates a year’s worth of observations by some 200 Court Watch NOLA volunteers who sit with yellow notepads in the various sections of Criminal District Court, monitoring the halting progress of criminal cases. The group does not claim to sit in on every case.
Past reports from the group have focused on a “culture of continuances” by all sides in the courthouse, documenting persistent delays that allow cases to stretch on for months. The new report casts a wider net.
Among its findings:
The number of continuances caused by criminal defendants not appearing for court spiked in the fall, after Sheriff Marlin Gusman transferred hundreds of inmates to far-away jails in northern Louisiana. But the numbers tapered off at year’s end.
Deputies who are supposed to provide courtroom security were about 60 percent effective in staying alert, paying attention and maintaining courtroom control.
A hiring freeze and other austerity measures at the Public Defenders Office resulted in a notable decline over the year in defense attorneys’ preparedness.
Judge Darryl Derbigny led the court’s dozen judges in out-of-earshot “sidebar” conferences with attorneys, while Judge Franz Zibilich held the fewest on average.
The prosecutors assigned to Judge Arthur Hunter’s courtroom showed the least respect toward others and were the least prepared of any assistant district attorneys in the building. Prosecutors in Judge Robin Pittman’s courtroom showed the most respect, based on numerical ratings by the volunteers.
Hunter took issue with the rankings, saying he has jailed attorneys in the past for disrespect in his courtroom.
“My ADAs are respectful. If they weren’t respectful, I’d hold them in contempt of court,” he said.
The report cites nearly 1,000 volunteer observations in more than 10,000 criminal cases.
It recommended equipping each courtroom with private booths where attorneys and defendants can confer. Levine said other jurisdictions have been subject to legal action because a lack of such confidential spaces may violate the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.
The court’s judicial administrator, Robert Kazik, declined to comment on the call for new attorney-client booths.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.