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May 23, 2006 - USA Today (US)

New Orleans Plans First Criminal Trials Since Katrina

By Laura Parker

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Defendants' rights violated, lawyers say New Orleans plans to hold its first criminal trial since Hurricane Katrina as soon as next week, the first step in solving a judicial crisis in which thousands of suspects have been jailed for months without trials.

Criminal District Court Chief Judge Calvin Johnson says courts will reopen in the downtown courthouse, which was flooded after the Aug. 29 storm.

He says 3,000 jury summonses have been mailed, and criminal trials could resume soon after Memorial Day weekend. It's unclear who will be tried or how they will be chosen.

The resumption of criminal trials would be a benchmark in New Orleans' recovery, but defense lawyers warn the effort may stall quickly.

They say that Katrina ripped apart an already troubled judicial system and that it's unclear whether defendants can get fair trials.

Johnson's plan is "extraordinarily optimistic," says Pamela Metzger of the criminal law clinic at Tulane University.

She says many of the 6,000 defendants awaiting trial in New Orleans are poor and their right to have a court-appointed lawyer hasn't been met months after their arrest.

New Orleans' civil courts, which handle disputes between parties and do not rely on public defenders, have held a few trials without juries.

However, the criminal side of the court system has been in limbo. A recent Justice Department report said justice is "unavailable" for poor crime suspects in New Orleans.

It said the public defender's office needs 70 lawyers and more than $8 million. State officials and the U.S. government are weighing plans to spend millions of dollars to restore New Orleans' judiciary.

It won't be easy. Thirty-one of the 39 public defenders have been laid off since Katrina.

District Attorney Eddie Jordan and several defense lawyers say 2,100 of those awaiting trial are in jails, many without adequate legal representation.

Metzger and other lawyers have filed lawsuits demanding that jailed suspects be tried or released.

Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter has said thousands will have to be released if the state does not come up with money for public defenders.

Jordan says the vast majority of the defendants who need lawyers face drug charges, and about three dozen cases involve homicides.

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