NEW ORLEANS – It was telling that, despite the presence of prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs and 27 shackled inmates in orange jumpsuits, New Orleans Magistrate Anthony Russo felt compelled to point out, “This is a court.”
“We are going to have the same decorum,” he cautioned.
Russo, a 31-year veteran of the bench, is one of a handful of judges presiding over the only form of criminal justice in New Orleans. Court is held in the basement of the local jail with a ratty, peeling ceiling and yardstick notches on the wall because the room was once used for police lineups.
Every case, from traffic tickets to homicides, is argued here. The building has no heat, and a stubborn pool of water hugs the entrance, so a wooden pallet is used as a bridge, Municipal Court Judge Sean Early said.
Nothing, perhaps, embodies the civic collapse of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina so much as the city’s criminal justice system.
Defense attorneys have dubbed New Orleans “Guantanamo on the Bayou,” because some clients have been held for months without access to the court system.
The attorneys have begun seeking, and winning, the release of their clients, as judges have agreed with some regularity that people accused of crimes cannot be held indefinitely without a hearing, even in an emergency.
Indeed, even while Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan pledges to resurrect his agency and finish prosecuting 3,000 cases, law enforcement and criminal justice authorities acknowledge that the release of some defendants in recent weeks could be just the beginning.
“No one is sleeping on it. Everybody is working to resolve it. But the criminal justice system is at a standstill,” Russo said. “We will be forced to make a decision as to which of these defendants are going to have to be released.”For now, no portion of the justice system is intact.
Witnesses, defendants and lawyers are displaced across the country. So are the people who can provide the only witness testimony in many cases – the victims, for instance, of armed robberies, or the police officers who allegedly found cocaine or heroin in a defendant’s pocket. Defense attorneys and prosecutors are having legal debates they could have never imagined before the storm.
“Let’s say, for instance, you were taken off your roof by a helicopter and ended up in upstate New York, but you were out on bond at the time – which happened,” said C. Gary Wainwright, a defense attorney and a former candidate for district attorney. “Technically, to be out of state is a violation of bond, and you’re supposed to be put back in jail. But the government took you to New York. So what happens next?”
New Orleans no longer has a single functioning courthouse. Court records, the city’s two primary evidence vaults, coroner’s reports and the city crime lab were all flooded.
Even if those problems can be resolved, Russo said, the state is unable to grant defendants a trial by jury, which they are guaranteed by law. New Orleans’ population has hit a plateau in recent weeks at about 20 percent of what it was before the storm. “We don’t have a jury pool,” Russo said.
Prosecutors face problems on two fronts – finding the resources to pursue the cases they had taken on before the storm, and sorting out the 1,000 or more cases where suspects have been held without access to attorneys or the courts.
Under Louisiana law, prosecutors have 45 days to bring charges against someone arrested on misdemeanor charges and 60 days to bring charges against someone arrested on felony charges. Those deadlines, in many cases, have passed.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and the state Supreme Court have stepped in to give prosecutors extensions, but defense attorneys are not convinced the extensions are legal, considering that both the state and U.S. constitutions guarantee defendants the right to a speedy trial.
“The people who are sworn to uphold the constitution are suspending it – on their own,” Wainwright said.