new orleans public defenders not giving poor people fair trials!

Judges investigating representation of New Orleans' poor by defenders

Mary Foster Associated Press Feb. 11, 2006 12:00 AM

NEW ORLEANS - A New Orleans judge on Friday halted all cases in his court involving public defenders and summoned state lawmakers to talk about funding the city's overburdened indigent defender office.

The office had been struggling with a heavy caseload and inadequate funding even before Hurricane Katrina hit.

The Aug. 29 hurricane knocked out a huge part of its budget; about 75 percent of its funding normally comes from court fees and traffic fines that have gone uncollected since the storm. Public defenders have been laid off, leaving many who depend on their services caught in the system.

Office Director Tilden Greenbaum testified Friday that he has just six lawyers, down from 42, and that those still on the job often don't know where their clients are being held.

A former public defender appointed by the New Orleans judge to look into the situation estimated that the staff shortage has left 4,500 people sitting in jail for up to six months without seeing a lawyer.

"I think the system was broke before Katrina," said the former public defender, Rick Tessier. "Now, it's destroyed."

It was unclear how many cases would be affected by Judge Arthur Hunter's order. It covers only his section in the 12-section New Orleans criminal court system, but the court's chief judge has also launched an investigation into the ability of the office to represent the poor.

Hunter ordered state Senate President Don Hines, House Speaker Joe Salter and Mayor Ray Nagin, all Democrats, to appear in his court on Feb. 23 to discuss a solution.

New Orleans' public defender system has been one of the worst in the nation for years, said Rafael Goyeneche, executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of Greater New Orleans and a former assistant district attorney.

"They have always been underfunded, always been the stepchild," Goyeneche said. "And in Orleans Parish upward of 90 percent of the 12,000 criminal cases each year are represented by a public defender."

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