Attorneys for seven pre-trial detainees, some of whom have spent more than a year behind bars, asked an Orleans Parish judge on Tuesday to let their clients out of jail, saying the lawyers lack the money to represent them amid a statewide squeeze on public defense funding.
Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter declined to take immediate action, giving District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro until Thursday to respond to the latest legal volley over cutbacks in services at cash-strapped public defenders offices in New Orleans and across Louisiana.
The seven inmates who showed up in Hunter’s courtroom have been charged with a range of crimes.
Darrian Franklin faces charges of murder and obstruction of justice and has been behind bars for 561 days, one quarter of them without a lawyer.
Joshua Vaughn faces armed robbery, firearms and stolen auto counts; he has spent 263 days in jail, including 109 without counsel.
Alex Bernard, 48, was booked in December on counts of first-degree robbery, simple battery and aggravated assault. He’s been in jail for three months without anyone to work on his case, said Pam Metzger, a Tulane Law School professor who pressed Tuesday for the release of all seven.
Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office withdrew from representing all of the defendants, citing bloated caseloads and a lack of attorneys.
Bunton last summer instituted a hiring freeze and other austerity measures, spurred by a funding shortfall that appears to be getting worse, he testified Tuesday. His office began turning away some cases in January.
A funding scheme for public defense in Louisiana that relies heavily on local traffic tickets may now be compounded by the state’s budget crisis. State lawmakers are mulling deep cuts in the $33 million a year that has gone to boost indigent defense funding.
“The governor’s proposed budget cuts public defense by 62 percent statewide,” Bunton said.
Hunter has championed the cause of indigent defense funding in the past. In 2006, he released several poor inmates who had been locked up, doing what came to be known as “Katrina time,” as the Orleans Parish criminal justice system lay in tatters after Hurricane Katrina.
In 2012, Hunter appointed several well-known political figures and business leaders with law degrees to represent criminal defendants in his courtroom, hoping to raise the issue’s profile in response to layoffs at Bunton’s office.
In a move that appears designed to bring the indigent funding problem — what he has termed a “constitutional crisis” — to a legal head, Hunter hand-picked private attorneys to represent the seven defendants who appeared Tuesday.
Those attorneys have filed motions to withdraw from the cases unless someone comes up with the money to pay them, and Hunter has suspended the prosecutions as the legal drama plays out.
A 2005 Louisiana Supreme Court decision allows a halt to prosecutions, “if the trial judge determines that adequate funding is not available,” until the money turns up.
But advocates say that ruling and others have stopped well short of fixing a broken funding system for indigent defense in Louisiana.
“They never really solved the problem. At some point they’ve got to take the next logical step, which is that you halt the prosecution and (the defendant) walks out,” said attorney Stephen Haedicke, who was appointed by Hunter to represent Malcolm Smith, who has been jailed for more than a year.
“If there are no funds available for his representation, halting the prosecution is available under the law, but that doesn’t help him,” said attorney Nick Trenticosta, who was appointed to represent Vaughn, 22. “I cannot do anything without proper funds. The other option is releasing him. Let him go home to support himself.”
Metzger called on Hunter to release all seven “because of the state’s chronic, persistent and catastrophic failure to fund the indigent defense system.”
Keeping criminal defendants behind bars without lawyers doesn’t just affect the defendants, she said, but stalls prosecutions by Cannizzaro’s office and weighs on victims and their families.
“This is a tragedy for every victim and every victim family that walks into the courtroom and says, ‘Where’s my justice?’ ” Metzger said.
In 2007, the Legislature created a state board to oversee indigent defense and hiked the amount of state funding. But amid a steady decline in the number of traffic tickets that still make up about half of public defense funding statewide, a growing number of district defenders have had to cut their services or even close their offices in recent months.
In Orleans Parish, Bunton’s office has turned away more than 100 new cases since January, most of them involving serious felonies such as murder, kidnapping and rape.
“Something should have been done a long time ago,” said Lynell Jones, whose son, Henry Campbell, was among those pressing for release Tuesday. Campbell, charged with aggravated rape, picked up new charges while behind bars, where he has remained for more than three years.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.