Darren Bridges

Darren Bridges

What should have been a simple court hearing for Darren Bridges, the man accused of killing New Orleans Police Department Officer Marcus McNeil last month, hit a major snag Tuesday when lawyers with the Capital Defense Project said they didn't have enough resources to defend a man facing execution.

The hearing ended without Bridges entering a plea.

Bridges, 30, was indicted on first-degree murder and other charges last week. The office of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said it is seeking the death penalty.

NOPD releases surveillance footage related to shooting death of officer Marcus McNeil

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Marcus McNeil, October 2017

Marcus McNeil, an NOPD officer since 2014, died after being shot in New Orleans East on October 13, 2017. 

In a major realignment of how the state pays for indigent defense, the Louisiana Legislature last year shifted millions of dollars away from capital defense attorneys toward the public defenders who handle more minor cases.

The Capital Defense Project lost about $1 million in annual funding as a result.

More money went to the Orleans Public Defenders, but that office says it does not have any lawyers qualified to try a capital case.

"My feelings go out to the family of Officer McNeil as well as everyone else involved," Capital Defense Project Director Kerry Cuccia said. "And it’s a sad state of affairs that we’re in that the state does not properly fund the system."

It's not clear how long the lack of an attorney could delay a trial. The news clearly frustrated Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich, who set a Nov. 29 date for a new arraignment.

“I want to get this case moving,” Zibilich said. “If I spend weeks and months on how somebody gets paid while he sits in jail, it doesn’t seem very fair to me."

Relatives of McNeil, a New Orleans native who was shot Oct. 13 while patrolling New Orleans East, packed the courtroom for the hearing. McNeil, 29, had been working for the Police Department for three years and was the father of two young children.

McNeil’s family members left without commenting.

Cuccia offered the judge a list of attorneys who could potentially represent Bridges. However, it will be up to Zibilich and the lawyers assigned to the case to determine how to pay for what will almost certainly be a costly process, he said.

Cuccia said that if his attorneys went ahead with the case despite their manpower shortages, it might open the door to a lengthy appeals process. 

"If you move forward with less than constitutionally required representation, all it does is prolong the situation," he said.

With additional reporting from Janella Newsome of WWL-TV.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432