09/01/2006

Judge holds back on threat to release indigent prisoners -- for now

By MARY FOSTER
Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS- A New Orleans judge is holding back on his threat to release indigent inmates stuck in prison for months without court dates or appointed lawyers, but he said Thursday that the district attorney must begain weeding out cases he has no chance of winning.

State District Judge Arthur Hunter said dealing with a post-Hurricane Katrina backlog of 6,000 criminal cases will be impossible unless District Attorney Eddie Jordan takes action.

"He's the gatekeeper," Hunter told The Associated Press. "He has to determine which cases are intact, which cases still have witnesses available, which cases still have viable evidence or police officers to testify."

A year after Hurricane Katrina the court system is barely functioning, Hunter said. Judges can handle no more than six cases a day and can hold court only every other week because of the need to share courtrooms as hurricane repairs continue at the Orleans Parish Courthouse.

Getting the Legislature to better fund the public defenders office, thereby providing more lawyers to handle cases for poor people, would be one way to help unclog the system, Hunter said. Getting the district attorney to determine what cases are viable is another.

"He can determine which cases to try, and what he decides can mean less cases for the police department to handle, less cases for the public defender to handle, less for the sheriff to transport from around the state."

The situation is not only unconstitutional, Hunter said, it is dangerous.

"Things have not changed a great deal since the hurricane," Hunter said. "We're holding this system together with spit and tape and little else. Something has got to give."

Hunter used Tuesday's one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to press his effort to get the system moving. He said he needs every detail on the public defender's office and its caseload. He also ordered the district attorney, the clerk of court and the sheriff to help create lists of pending cases.

Hunter sent a letter to Jordan on July 28, asking him to start determining which cases could be eliminated, but said he had no response as of Thursday.

This week, in a two-page order calling for the public defender to provide a list of cases, Hunter did not mention his July statement that he would begin releasing indigent prisoners stuck in jail without court dates, attorneys and in many cases, formal charges. The releases would have begun Tuesday, the first anniversary of Katrina.

"It's not my purpose to flood the streets with criminals," Hunter said on Thursday. "The releases will be done on a case by case review, hopefully starting with the misdemeanors. But I have to warn that the constitution makes no distinction between murder and misdemeanor."

Jordan was not available for comment when called Thursday.

Prosecutors from neighboring Jefferson Parish are helping the Orleans Parish district attorney's office screen arrests for possible prosecutions, Richard Ieyoub, a former state attorney general and head of Mayor Ray Nagin's criminal justice committee, said Thursday. He was not sure how many assistants were working with Jordan's office.

"What we're hoping is that we can get rid of some of the backlog," Ieyoub said. "They are supposed to investigate and see if it's prosecutable."

The Louisiana District Attorney's Association also said it would send additional attorneys to help sort through cases if Jordan wished, Ieyoub said.

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