Monday, December 25, 2006
Even then, it was a surprisingly slow ride home. We secured a court order for Leo’s immediate release last Thursday. The prison should have released Leo promptly and put him on a bus back to New Orleans, but the bureaucracy predictably dampened all sense of urgency. Despite a court order and having kept Leo four months past expiration, prison officials were in no hurry to get him home in time for the holidays. After some cajoling, the prison assured us that Leo would be on a bus to New Orleans on Saturday. I waited, sign and all, for Leo to arrive at the bus station so I could make sure he got from the station to the home he shares with his elderly sister. I left disappointed. Several people called the prison trying to track down Leo, but no one would give us any information. “Call back on Tuesday, after the holiday, when the full staff is here.” Eventually, we got a call from Leo himself. He had made it back to New Orleans by Sunday, just in time for Christmas.
To paraphrase Churchill, prison officials finally did right by Leo after exhausting every other possibility. We have located numerous other inmates who have been held in prison well past their allotted time. As for them, the prison Scrooges evidently have a few lumps of coal to go around. Maybe the new year will bring some cheer for them.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
It is that sense of humanity that we have discarded and forgotten. I came to realize this after visiting a particular client in jail for the second time. After I greeted him, he paused and looked at me searchingly. Then he said something like this: “You really came back. The guards told me nobody’s coming to see me. Everyone says there’s no way a lawyer will come and talk to you. And you’re here again?” I assured him that I would be back as many times as needed to prepare his defense. He can’t believe his luck. His hope is percolating, which I sense overtaking his despair.
This encounter seems repeated with each person I meet in jail. They all are surprised that a lawyer would take an interest in their cases. This is not to say that the public defenders have intentionally, systematically ignored their clients. Rather, they are simply too overloaded with cases to possibly devote such time to each of their clients. Hence, we have had to turn to volunteers, like the law students from the Student Hurricane Network, to help fill in the breach. What are we to make of a justice system that must depend on the good graces of volunteers? In just the first week of student trips, we have uncovered numerous pre-trial detainees who have been held well past the maximum time allowed for a speedy trial, and sometimes beyond the maximum time allowed for a sentence even if they had been convicted. It is a system that has failed. Without advocates, the accused are subject to the merciless winds of a system stacked against them.
We evidently have a tremendous blind spot for those accused of crimes, especially for those who are too poor to afford a lawyer. Out of sight, out of mind is the prevailing view. When we leave these people literally defenseless, we have stripped them of the most basic elements of their humanity, treating them purely as caged animals. (For the skeptics out there, I suppose I should note that the client described above is one that I believe to be wrongfully accused; the presumption of innocence, in any event, should serve as an equalizer for that conceit.) If we should accept that sorry state of affairs, then we might as well check our own humanity at the door.
Monday, December 18, 2006
The challenging landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans naturally breeds frustration. People who have lived through it are all too familiar with the problems. For those with the benefit of critical distance, myself included, it’s all too easy to focus on the thicket of problems without honoring the accomplishments. Remember, 80% of the City was flooded little more than a year ago. For months, people couldn’t return to their homes, if they had homes to which they could return. City services were crippled, and people had to drive out of town just to buy groceries. Businesses are struggling, and tax revenues are down. Even in the best of circumstances, it would be challenging to reform the system on the do-it-now timetable everyone craves. Needless to say, current conditions in New Orleans are far from ideal. When you put it all into context – the on-the-ground reality of a crippled City – the incremental progress that has been made is truly impressive. And even more impressive are the people who, despite enormous personal and professional demands, still find the boundless time and energy to serve the community when it would be a whole lot easier to throw up your hands.
Of course, there is a long, bumpy road ahead. Naturally, there will be lively debates about the appropriate reforms. What is unacceptable is pretending all work is done, or casting blame without lending a hand. There is work to be done.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Student volunteers are on their way. Waves of them, in fact. (Or locust swarms, if you’re asking the Sheriff.) In conjunction with the Student Hurricane Network, law students from around the country are spending their winter breaks to fan out across Louisiana to interview inmates, create client files, and help queue them up for effective legal representation. The students must depend entirely on their own dime for travel, accommodations, and expenses. (They are not too proud for your donations!) If the State cannot and will not address its own problems, at least we know we can rely on the generosity of indefatigable student volunteers to save the day. Kafka’s Josef K. never had it so good.
Monday, December 11, 2006
If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. State prisons are chock full of Orleans Parish inmates awaiting trial who have never spoken to a lawyer. As many as 1,800 of them. In the 1970s, Orleans Parish had only about 800 inmates; thirty years later, that number reached 8,000 despite the City shedding 100,000 people. We’re not stocking jails with newly minted violent criminals – FBI crime statistics betray that farce – but consider yourself safe from Tarot card readers and dope smokers. The Constitution is virtually unknown in these quarters. Judges set bonds (a supposedly individualized determination) without defendants, and often no defense lawyers, present. The Legislature evidently finds inconvenient the State’s burden of proof and thus has passed (patently unconstitutional) laws to shift key evidentiary burdens to the defense. Never mind innocent until proved guilty; the D.A. shamelessly prefers to detain indefinitely anyone who's poor while ignoring something we like to call due process. And the Sheriff is only too happy to oblige, earning $30 a night for every inmate in the Parish motel. Three strikes – or three feather-weight victimless crimes – and you’ll have plenty of time, at taxpayers’ expense, to repent for your sins. My client charged with soliciting oral sex for $13 faces twenty years to life. Too poor to pay your fines? Nonpayment will land you right back in jail. For municipal offenses, judges offer the choice of paying fines or spending 60 days in jail: The rich can go home, the poor get three squares and a bed at the Orleans Parish Bastille.
As recently reported at the Criminal Justice Task Force meeting, there has been some modest amount of progress. But this is no time for self-congratulatory pats on the back. Like angry drunks, the powers-that-be still scorn anyone who dares suggest any reforms. (The judges of the criminal court recently threatened contempt of the reform-minded board overseeing the public defenders.) The first step to recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem. The problems here are long-standing, not just a Katrina hangover. It’s time for an intervention.
[This post has generated some chatter. Please see my follow-up here.]
Monday, December 04, 2006
This month’s speaker was Dr. Richard Deichmann, former chief of medicine at Baptist Hospital, who stayed behind to help evacuate the hospital as Katrina wreaked havoc on the City. His harrowing and heart-wrenching account would leave you speechless. (Dr. Deichmann’s full story is memorialized in his new book, Code Blue: A Katrina Physician’s Memoir.) The hospital was an evacuation center, not only serving as a drop-off point for some of the City’s most ailing patients, but also stuffed full of patients’ families (and pets!) who had nowhere to turn. Conditions rapidly deteriorated once generators ran out of fuel or were swamped. Without electricity to run air conditioning, temperatures inside the hospital reached 110 degrees in the hot summer; doctors and nurses carted patients up flights of stairs to the parking garage and roof to give patients the marginal relief of 95 degree humid air and hand-fanning with papers. One person asked, “So how did people die?” Any number of clinical reasons could be cataloged for these seriously ill patients, but Dr. Deichmann focused on one common affliction: despair. One could make the same observation about a struggling City. What is left if you have no hope? The Crescent City has a treasured history, rich traditions, and perseverant people who won’t let the City die. Take two of these with a little drink, and call the doctor in the morning. Cheers to the Huddled Masses!
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
For what it’s worth, the Assistant District Attorney offered the State’s formal apology to Mr. Parra-Sanchez, and the presiding judge expressed his outrage. The Sheriff and Department of Corrections – which are responsible for housing prisoners – couldn’t muster an apology, preferring the blame game and finger pointing. Had they previously exhausted the reservoir of hari-kari outrage? I’d guess there’s more head rolling at Wal-Mart when too many DVDs and pampers disappear from the shelves than when Orleans Parish Prison loses track of its inmates. Is it really too much to ask to have the State keep tabs on its pre-trial detainees so it knows who’s in custody, where, and for how long? One would think modern computers are up to the task, and a decent tracking system would save the State a lot of front-page news embarrassment. (Well, except shame may be unknown in some bureaucratic quarters.)
A positive footnote: Kudos to Touro Synagogue, which paid for the travel expenses home to California for Mr. Parra-Sanchez, a devout Catholic man, after learning of his plight from a Tulane student attorney of Iranian descent. Score one for interfaith cooperation!
Monday, November 27, 2006
The judges of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court recently concluded that the floundering system has imperiled the Public Defender’s ability to provide an adequate defense for all its indigent clients as the Constitution requires. True enough. Curiously, however, the judges blame the Public Defender’s recently implemented “policies and practices” for the breach, and the judges have threatened to hold the board that oversees the Public Defender in contempt if more public defenders are not hired. The offending policies and practices are things like hiring full-time public defenders, establishing a central office, and setting up a networked computer system to track cases – all changes recommended by every independent study (including one by the U.S. Department of Justice) of the problems with public defense in Orleans Parish. Nor do the judges even hint where the money will come from to hire more public defenders, to say nothing of the fact that attracting competent lawyers at $29,000 per year is no small task. Thus, the judges’ criticism sounds a lot like blaming teachers for a poor education system when the State fails to allocate sufficient funds to buy textbooks and hire enough qualified teachers to maintain a proper student-teacher ratio. I guess the Public Defender should take a page out of the PTA playbook and hold a bake sale to close the gap in funding.
Perhaps the judges’ threatened contempt proceedings are better directed at the Governor. It is the State, after all, that is responsible for ensuring that competent lawyers are provided to those who cannot afford them. (The Public Defender board is at the State’s mercy for funding.) If the State were serious about discharging this obligation, it would follow the federal model and consider funding the Public Defender in the same manner and to the same extent as the State’s Prosecutors. And if the State’s not willing to do that, the least it can do is dispatch more meter maids – or eat more cupcakes.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
We now hear that 90% or more of the State's evidence has been "remediated," a term that necessarily makes defense lawyers, and perhaps juries, circumspect. In any case, that still leaves a good deal of evidence missing or destroyed. (See this excellent NY Times article by Chris Drew.) That's not to say that prosecutions can't go forward -- we've all heard of people being convicted for murder without a weapon or even a body being found. But what are we to make of the fact that the destruction of evidence was, at least in some sense, caused by the State's own folly? Like Jonah who slept as his ship split apart in tempestuous waters, the State seems to have completely ignored the obvious fact that flood waters could wreak havoc on the State's evidence room. Everyone knows basements are virtually non-existent in New Orleans -- even the dead are buried in above-ground crypts -- so you've got to wonder why the State was storing its precious evidence below the water table. Perhaps the State awaits Jonah's whale to spit us all out on the dry shores of Assyria?
Saturday, November 18, 2006
I spent yesterday afternoon at NOCCA to witness firsthand a shining example of a New Orleans institution that truly works. I was inspired as much as entertained. NOCCA is remarkable not only for nurturing amazing talents, but for having students that reflect the resiliency and resolve that pours forth from the City’s soul. Ronald, like many other NOCCA students, lost just about everything (including his piano) in the floods following Katrina. His talent and desire, however, were unrepressed. He studied at Julliard while the City got back on its feet, but he couldn’t wait to settle in again at NOCCA. A number of students were so anxious to return that they are living with friends despite their own families being unable to move back to the City. They need New Orleans and NOCCA the way we all need air to breathe. New Orleans – a place where music and the arts are literally the heartbeat of the City – no doubt needs them equally as much. Come out to support NOCCA and its aspiring young artists and you'll play a part in New Orleans’ revival and just might catch a glimpse of tomorrow’s biggest stars.
Friday, November 17, 2006
My first exposure to bond hearings was on a Sunday at the House of Detention -- first stop on the jail express. (Bond hearings are held seven days a week to account for daily arrests and the 48-hour rule.) Around 50 people arrested over the last 24 hours were herded into the old line-up room at central lock-up, adorned in retro-bureaucratic Spartan furnishings: a few weathered tables and rows of metal and plastic chairs. In other words, it's a dump. The prisoners all wear bright orange jumpsuits with OPP (Orleans Parish Prison) emblazoned on the front and back, legs shackled (sometimes to another prisoner) and sheriff's deputies stationed all around. Our team -- one experienced public defender, me (not so experienced), and three law students -- has about 30 minutes to fan out and interview all the prisoners to find out each person's criminal history, physical and mental health, current employment, parole and probation status, and family and community ties -- all factors that bear on the bail determination. Needless to say, there's hardly time to interview one or two persons in that time, let alone the whole lot of them. And there's definitely not time to hear about the facts of everyone's alleged misdeeds (though they surely want to talk about that).
Most insist they are innocent. Most are not. But some undoubtedly do not belong in jail. Repeatedly you hear how the police planted evidence or someone was picked up based on an “anonymous” tip, i.e., “You look sketchy in a bad neighborhood, so we’re gonna search you.” No doubt, most of this, in the words of one law school professor, slices the bologna too thin. But it's difficult to discount their stories completely. Case in point: Upon meeting Carl at the bond hearing, you wouldn’t miss the fact that he had a brand new black eye, bruises, and generally looked beat up. As he tells it, he was pulled over for a traffic violation and the police beat the crap out of him for no good reason. It’s hard to dispute the beating part. His crime? Criminal trespass. Right. Sounds more like the cops had to charge him with something if they were going to justify the rough treatment.
Some are just angry and defiant. Perhaps that’s how they should feel. In others you sense the fright and apprehension. Trust me; you don’t want to be locked up in OPP. Still others are simply resigned to their fate, while a few are confident that their buddy will bail them out. They’ve been through multiple arrests and know the drill.
Before you know it, the Magistrate strolls in, takes his position at the desk on an elevated stage overlooking the rows of prisoners, separated by a table with a couple Assistant District Attorneys and computer. Time's up. Pencils Down. It’s my chance to make a case based on the reams (or not!) of pertinent information I was able to learn in a short interview. Unfortunately, it all makes little difference. The hearing for each person usually lasts 30 seconds or so -- just long enough for the Assistant DA to read the charges and criminal history and for the judge to set bond. If I've got some particularly compelling facts for either probable cause or to set bond, the judge will indulge another minute or two of argument. Defense lawyers in this process primarily serve as ornaments to give some semblance of fairness. If you’re a prisoner, you'd better hope your lawyer is lucky, rather than good.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Katrina has compounded the problems for the poor. There now are fewer public defenders by roughly half, but the case backlog has grown exponentially. There were as many as 6,000 cases backlogged after the hurricane, and approximately 3,000 remain. (To say nothing of the 50 or so new cases coming in every day.) Those are people – many innocent – that remain jailed since Katrina awaiting trial, many of whom have not had any meaningful representation. The system simply does not have currently the resources to provide much more than ornamental legal representation to everyone who depends on the public defender system. That is not justice. As Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black observed four decades ago, we must not ration justice if we are to preserve our democracy. Let’s not test the theory.
Monday, November 13, 2006
In case it wasn’t obvious, I intend to use this space to ramble (and maybe rant) a bit about, among other things, the evolving state of affairs in the so-called criminal justice system in New Orleans. Let me set the stage. It is no secret that the justice system here has always been, shall we say, imperfect. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 served to expose some serious flaws, amplify the problems, and create new challenges for a chronically struggling system. Katrina decimated New Orleans and strained every sense of normal life for the City’s population. (The photos a footage you’ve seen may have earned their thousand words, but they are not currency enough for a disaster that defies description?) Those of means faced unimaginable obstacles whether they stayed or tried to go. Others were stranded until scattered like seeds blown by the shifting winds of incompetent evacuation planning and response by the supposed authorities.
Whatever measure of bureaucratic care there was, it doubtfully was saved for the Orleans Parish prisoners – castoffs who even before the storm had been relegated to caged shanty towns that, save the bars, might not be preferable to Rio’s slums. With Katrina approaching, no one was released from jail, not even if charged with the most minor offense, bonded out, or previously ordered released. Thus, the public drunk picked up the night before had to endure the same forced evacuation as violent criminals rightfully detained. Prisoners were quickly herded onto buses, though they were allowed no personal possessions. Indeed, prisoners made their passage without any identifying paperwork, and thus they were anonymously scattered about to prisons statewide without regard to their crimes charged. Alleged murderers and drunks shared cozy confines. Some were packed into prison yards and were tossed peanut butter sandwiches over the fence like meat pitched to starving dogs, so only the strongest ate and violence prevailed. Others waded through toxic waters only to be corralled on highway overpasses where, without any shade, prisoners’ skin was cooked in the blistering August sun for days on end.
Without a tracking system, authorities could not know for certain who was in custody, where they were being held, or what charges they faced. Army’s of volunteers eventually fanned out across the State to unscramble the mess. Months elapsed before even public drunks, who had been detained well past the maximum time faced for the alleged offense, could see a lawyer. In the interim, families had almost no way to track their loved ones in jail, and legal representation for the poor was essentially non-existent.
Widespread flooding did not spare the criminal justice system. The State courthouse in New Orleans was severely flooded and remained shuttered for months. Thus, state judges had to rely on limited courtrooms at the federal courthouse (which was not flooded) on rotating basis. The place where virtually all the State’s documentary and physical evidence was stored just so happened to be located in the basement of the courthouse and police station, which literally turned into a fishbowl of detritus, which was a moldy heap of trash when finally drained. (I’ll save the details for future posting.) Many witnesses (including police officers) evacuated the City and have not returned. The same can be said of residents who would fill the jury pool. With a reduced population and jury summonses going undelivered given so many relocations and unknown addresses, the state courts have been relegated to drawing only 150 jurors per day. Most public defenders either quit or were laid off following Katrina. An office of 50 or so lawyers was reduced to 4. The D.A.’s office similarly took its blows. Needless to say, the criminal justice system practically ground to a halt. Where to begin?
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Last week, my good friend invited me to attend the Marine Corps Birthday Ball to celebrate the 231st anniversary of the Marines. I was one of a handful of civilians among the 2000 or so uniformed servicemen and spouses who attended the festivities in New Orleans. This year the Commandant (highest ranking officer of the Marines) headlined the event in New Orleans, an evident nod to the special meaning of celebration in New Orleans, which had to cancel the event last year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. No doubt, the party was full of spectacular pomp and circumstance. Set that part aside, however, and you are left with a bunch of co-workers who were happy to let loose and celebrate tradition and a job well done (and, unfortunately, to honor their lost comrades – a job hazard with which most of us are unfamiliar). There were no parades and waves of congratulation; it was more like a giant office party. I suspect most all the Marines there would tell you that they are not heroes, but they’re simply doing a job. The really amazing part is that they seem to see nothing extraordinary about giving so much of themselves to people they don’t know. We are not all cut out to go to war, but we could all take a lesson in this great legacy of sacrifice. There are plenty of people in our own communities who could use a helping hand. If only it was part of everyone’s sense of basic honor and duty to extend that hand without expecting a pat on the back and being called a hero. It is that, which should be so ordinary, which deserves our celebration. I think our soldiers get that, and for that we should be thankful.