A dispute over funding for private defense attorneys who have volunteered to handle a flurry of gang prosecutions in Orleans Parish reached a boiling point Friday when a judge threatened to hold Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton in contempt for balking at her order for his office to pony up.
Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier grew testy when Bunton continued to argue that his office shouldn’t have to pay defense attorney Benjamin Sanders from a $233,000 pot of money that the City Council designated this year for the defense of alleged gang members named in a host of state racketeering cases brought by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office.
The City Council approved the money long after Sanders stepped up to represent Charlie Brown, who is awaiting trial as one of 15 defendants named last year in a massive 51-count indictment against alleged members of the “110’ers” gang.
Bunton’s office has stepped away from representing Brown and scores of other defendants awaiting trial in a handful of the gang cases, citing conflicts because of its defense either of co-defendants in related cases or of witnesses to the numerous murders and other violent crimes alleged in the wide-ranging prosecutions.
Bunton, however, pressed forward with his claim that the judge had no authority to order him to pay Sanders, who is not on a roster of approved “conflict” attorneys.
“It is ridiculous, because your office received funding for something that you are refusing to provide!” the judge said.
“That’s not true,” Bunton retorted, at which point Flemings-Davillier threatened to hold him in contempt.
The judge issued a stay while Bunton appeals her ruling. Even so, other defense attorneys involved in the 110’ers case said they would get in line with requests for similar payment.
The contretemps underscored concerns that have been brewing for years over how to adequately fund public defenders in Louisiana. Those concerns recently were highlighted by the huge, multiple-defendant state cases that Cannizzaro and now other district attorneys are launching.
Since Cannizzaro, exploiting an obscure state law, started prosecuting the gang racketeering cases in December 2010, Orleans Parish Criminal Court judges have scrambled to enlist attorneys to represent the accused gang members for free. But the judges have said they can’t make such requests indefinitely, and defense advocates complain that those defendants are being shortchanged, with no public resources available to hire experts or investigators, for instance.
They call it an unfair fight, given that the prosecutions are often built with the help of police and numerous well-funded federal law enforcement agencies.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore has adopted the same model to prosecute alleged gang members there. Moore and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell are now fighting their own funding battle as they appeal a district judge’s order that the state set aside $3 million to pay for lawyers to represent several defendants named in a 24-count racketeering case, or risk having them released.
The state claims that 19th Judicial District Judge Trudy White overstepped her authority in an order aimed at casting a spotlight on the process for funding public defenders in the state. The offices are largely funded through fines levied on criminal defendants.
In the Orleans Parish case, Flemings-Davillier didn’t order a specific amount to be paid to Sanders, only that it be reasonable.
Bunton argued Friday that he didn’t approve many of the lawyers who signed on to represent alleged gang members in the Orleans Parish cases, and in fact that he objected to them. If his office is going to pay, he has a right to appoint the lawyer, he argued.
That argument fell on deaf ears.
Bunton’s office is slated to receive about the same amount of funding from the city in 2015 specifically for the defense of gang racketeering cases. He said half of the money for 2014 has been tapped, with approved attorneys receiving a flat $3,000 for each case.
Outside the courtroom Friday, Bunton said he was confident an appeals court would overturn the judge’s order. If it stands, however, the city money will be drained quickly, he acknowledged.
Bunton said the current system is ill-equipped to handle the kinds of multiple-defendant racketeering cases that are normally prosecuted in federal court.
“It may be a good idea to litigate these cases this way, but in a user-pay system, if you want complex litigation, it’s going to take funding to do it,” he said.
Several defense attorneys involved in the 110’ers case praised the judge’s ruling.
Michael Idoyaga, who represents Demond “Lil D” Sandifer, said he had hoped to hire a mitigation expert to help argue against a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for Sandifer, who was a juvenile when he gunned down 22-year-old Milton Davis in 2011. Sandifer, 19, was convicted of murder in August but awaits another trial next month in the 110’ers case,
Flemings-Davillier refused to grant him the possibility of parole at a sentencing hearing last month.
“It’s something everyone should have,” Idoyaga said of the funding for experts and investigators. “It’s possible the outcome of his sentence might have been different.”
Whether defense attorneys will pursue the same tack with other judges handling different gang racketeering cases in Orleans parish was uncertain.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.