Darren Bridges

Darren Bridges

The man accused of gunning down New Orleans Police Department Officer Marcus McNeil last month has an attorney after all.

Last week, the director of the Capital Defense Project of Southeast Louisiana, Kerry Cuccia, said the nonprofit agency could not represent Darren Bridges in the first-degree murder case because of cuts to its budget imposed by the state.

But at a hearing Wednesday, Cuccia reversed himself and said the group will represent Bridges, who could face the death penalty if convicted. Without going into specifics, he said his group's caseload had eased from the previous week.  

At the same hearing, Bridges, who wore an orange jail jumpsuit and shackles, entered a plea of not guilty on all eight charges against him.

Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich welcomed the about-face.

"The court, Mr. Cuccia, really appreciates that," he said. "This court should not have to be sidetracked by funding issues, nor should the accused or the victim’s family."

The family of McNeil, a three-year NOPD veteran and father of two who lived in Kenner, left the courtroom without making any statements.

Defendants facing the death penalty in four other parishes are on a waiting list for legal representation, according to the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which contracts with the Capital Defense Project to handle death-penalty cases in New Orleans.

Bridges' case was poised to become the most high-profile trial in the state to be delayed by the cuts. The Capital Defense Project’s budget was cut nearly in half this year, from $2,063,370 to $1,135,000, according to Jay Dixon, the state's chief public defender.

After Cuccia filed a motion last week asserting that he could not represent Bridges, the judge was faced with limited options for advancing the case.

Zibilich could have held a hearing on the Capital Defense Project’s finances in a bid to force Cuccia to take the case. Or he could have found private defense attorneys willing to take the case, although securing funding for them would have been an issue.

Instead, Cuccia’s announcement saved Zibilich the trouble. Cuccia, an experienced death penalty attorney, did not go into detail when asked to explain his change of heart after the hearing.

“Any lawyer's caseload is always a fluid situation. You get new cases, cases close out, things change, the workload reduces,” he said. “In the last seven days, things have changed and it allowed us to take the case, and so I'm very happy that we're able to stay on.”

Bridges is accused of killing McNeil after a struggle on a New Orleans East street on Oct. 13. Police said that McNeil was trying to stop Bridges when a struggle broke out. McNeil used a Taser to stun Bridges, but the suspect managed to pull a gun and kill the officer, police said.

Another police officer shot Bridges soon afterward. He escaped to his girlfriend's apartment nearby but surrendered rather than bleed to death, according to police.

Bridges had a backpack full of drugs when officers tried to stop him, police said. Among other counts he has been charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine, Alprazolam, Tramadol and Bupenorphine.

He has an extensive history of arrests for drug crimes and domestic violence.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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