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Judge threatens to release defendants because of chaos in New Orleans

Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS- A Louisiana judge Friday warned that New Orleans' program for providing lawyers for poor defendants is in such chaos that he will begin releasing inmates next month unless things are improved.

Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter, who had ruled the program unconstitutional earlier this year, said the releases would begin Aug. 29, one year after Hurricane Katrina sent an already shaky system into crisis.

Up to 6,000 defendants still awaiting trial could be affected. Defendants will be released on a case-by-case basis, Hunter said.

The indigent-defense program gets almost three-quarters of its funding from traffic fines and fees, but the revenue dropped drastically after Katrina. It had 70 attorneys before the storm; officials now say it has fewer than 30.

Because of the crunch, many defendants have not been assigned attorneys, or their attorneys have been swamped with work. As a result, many defendants have been in jail since Katrina nearly a year ago, still waiting for their cases to go to court.

"The right to an attorney, right to effective assistance of counsel, right to a fair trial, the rule of law and the Constitution triumphs over funding follies, pseudo-legal maneuvers and unparalleled inertia," Hunter said.

Assistant Louisiana Attorney General Burton Guidry and a New Orleans prosecutors said they will appeal.

Hunter was the second judge to find the funding system unconstitutional. Another judge upheld it.

Hunter told prosecutors to start deciding which cases can be weeded out by, for example, finding out whether arresting officers are still available to testify.

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