A state appeals court panel has overturned an Orleans Parish judge’s April ruling that seven inmates being held on violent felony charges should be released because there is no money to pay for adequate defenses for them.
In his dramatic release order, which he had stayed pending an appeal, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter failed to make “individualized findings relative to the necessity of available funds for each” of the seven defendants he ordered released after halting their prosecutions, the appeals court found Thursday.
Chief Judge James McKay and Judges Roland Belsome and Rosemary Ledet, of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, unanimously agreed with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office that Hunter needed to treat each case separately and find that sufficient funds were not available to defend each of the seven.
In a 10-page ruling, the appeals court said two of the defendants didn’t make any claim for how much their lawyers would need and that for the other five, Hunter issued only a blanket finding, “ruling generally that there were no funds available to pay for their defense.”
The ruling came a day after Pam Metzger, who has represented all seven men in their bids for freedom, filed a motion with the Louisiana Supreme Court calling for their release based on six weeks of inaction by the appeals court.
After the ruling was issued Thursday, Metzger said she expects some of the appointed attorneys for the seven men will appeal the 4th Circuit decision, while others may return to Hunter seeking to strengthen their cases claiming a lack of funds.
Hunter’s ruling came amid a steep budget shortfall for several public defenders offices across Louisiana, largely the result of declining revenues from fines and fees on defendants, mainly traffic scofflaws.
In Orleans Parish, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office has turned away more than 100 serious felony cases this year, citing an overworked staff and a lack of experienced attorneys to handle the cases.
Hunter, who has a history of drastic action over what he has described as a “constitutional crisis” in funding for public defense, held several hearings dating back to November, building a case for his ruling on the release of the seven defendants. According to the appeals court, it wasn’t enough.
Hunter ruled that the lack of state funding for their defenses violated their Sixth Amendment rights and that the resulting uncertainty on when their cases might move forward warrants their release.
“The defendants’ constitutional rights are not contingent on budget demands, waiting lists and the failure of the Legislature to adequately fund indigent defense,” Hunter wrote in his 11-page ruling, portions of which he read from the bench while halting the seven men’s prosecutions and ordering 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?”
The defendants — Alex Bernard, Henry Campbell, Darrian Franklin, Donald Gamble, Malcolm Smith, Joshua Vaughn and Benny Walker — all face serious felony charges including murder, armed robbery and aggravated rape.
All have been deemed indigent. Most have spent more than a year behind bars, going months without legal help on their cases, their attorneys said.
In addition to Metzger, a Tulane law professor, each of the men has an attorney appointed by Hunter. But in his ruling, Hunter said the appointment of private attorneys without any state money available for early witness and defendant interviews, filing motions and strategizing “makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.”
In 2005, the Louisiana Supreme Court said judges can halt prosecutions because of a lack of adequate indigent defense funds. The court said a judge can stop a case “until he or she determines that appropriate funding is likely to be available.”
The “absence of a date certain” when that money will come, Hunter found, also violates the right to due process guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Louisiana Constitution’s mandate for the Legislature to “provide for a uniform system for securing and compensating qualified counsel for indigents.”