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New Orleans Struggles to Rebuild Justice System after Hurricane Katrina

May 25, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: This is the face of justice in a post-Katrina world.

COUNTY JAIL JUDGE: If you wish to make a statement, speak to the public defender first.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Magistrate’s court is held in a visitors lounge at the county jail because the court house is still closed. The district attorney’s office does business in an old night club beneath the glare of a disco ball.

New Orleans D.A. Eddie Jordan tries to move cases along, but it’s almost impossible. There hasn’t been a single criminal jury trial since Katrina.

EDDIE JORDAN, District Attorney, New Orleans: The cases that we had before Katrina, as well as the cases that have developed after Katrina, have continued to stack up, and we now have a huge backlog of cases that have not moved.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you have any idea how many?

EDDIE JORDAN: I would say it’s probably in the neighborhood of 6,000 cases.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ninety percent of those cases involve defendants who are indigent and, because they can’t afford a lawyer, they are entitled to a public defender. But the city, which funds the public defenders office with traffic fines, is broke.

NEW ORLEANS TRIAL ATTORNEY: We were supposed to have a motion hearing on Tuesday…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So more than 30 lawyers have been laid off, leaving only nine attorneys to juggle thousands of cases. Tilden Greenbaum heads the public defenders office.

TILDEN GREENBAUM, Chief Public Defender, New Orleans: What we’re doing right now is, whoever is in court, we represent. We eventually will reach a point where we may get beyond what we should be taking in case load. But for now, everybody that comes to court has an attorney with them, and we represent them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On a typical day, public defender John Paul Morrell (ph) moves back and forth from one detainee to another, having little time to figure out what to say to the court.

NEW ORLEANS ATTORNEY: Upon detaining the defendant, officers located a fully loaded Smith and Wesson .40-caliber semi-automatic handgun in defendant’s front waistband in his pants.

NEW ORLEANS ATTORNEY: Mr. Deion (ph) was the owner of that firearm, and he was situated 20 feet from his home.

NEW ORLEANS JUDGE: A $5,000 fine.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So in a matter of minutes, with very little information, Morrell’s client’s case moves on, not to a speedy trial, but into a kind of limbo where it may languish along with thousands of other cases that are waiting to be tried.

The man in charge of the city’s criminal courts, Judge Calvin Johnson, says in the days after Katrina the entire judicial system collapsed.

CHIEF JUDGE CALVIN JOHNSON, New Orleans Criminal Court: Everything died. You’re standing in a place where the entire justice system went down.

Has justice failed these people?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Has justice failed these people?

CHIEF JUDGE CALVIN JOHNSON: I want to say no. I want to say, no, no, justice didn't fail. But in all honesty, yes, it failed. It failed.

We did not plan for a system failure. We didn't plan for that. And because we didn't plan for a system failure, we were unable to find the people who were in jail who shouldn't have been in jail. We weren't able to process the people into the system in the fashion in which they should have been processed, because our system failed.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is it anybody's fault?


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Believing there were people lost in all this chaos, Johnson ordered attorneys with the Tulane University Law Clinic to look for them.

GREGORY DAVIS, Wrongfully Charged in Robbery Case: How are you all doing? We made it, huh?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And it didn't take long before they turned up cases, like 51-year-old Greg Davis.

GREGORY DAVIS: One morning, I went to the store to get me some cigarettes, and I was arrested. They say I was arrested on a burglary charge. I had never went back to court. I just was arrested and got a bond set, and that was it. And then the hurricane came and hit, and that was -- after the hurricane hit, I winded up staying in jail for, like, seven-and-a-half months.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So this is your mom's place?

GREGORY DAVIS: This is my mom's place.

Not enough lawyers

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Davis is home now in New Orleans, but he was never arraigned, he never had a trial. And until Tulane Law Professors Katherine Mattes, Pam Metzger and their students found him, he also had never seen a lawyer.

PAMELA METZGER, Tulane University Law Clinic: I wasn't assigned to represent Greg Davis. I found him by chance. And had I not found him, he would have waited until the next person found him.

He spent seven months in jail, seven months in jail because he was arrested for something that they ultimately dropped, a crime he didn't do and they dismissed against him, and he got lost in the system. There was no one looking out for him.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even Judge Johnson is surprised at how many people like Davis are being located.

CHIEF JUDGE CALVIN JOHNSON: We are still finding them. We find them. We find them every week. We have gone through computer reports; we have gone through paper records; we've gone through, I mean, jails. We've gone and gone and gone, and we still find people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Recently, attorney Megan Garvey went before Judge Gerard Hansen to ask for the release of a group of inmates she says have been held for months without an attorney.

MEGAN GARVEY, Attorney: Seven of these nine people have not been arraigned. Therefore, they have not been appointed counsel. Therefore, they sit incarcerated with formal charges against them and no lawyer, in violation of their Sixth Amendment rights.

GERARD HANSEN, Orleans Parish Magistrate Chief Judge: I will look at them all on Monday.

Inadequate tracking system

BETTY ANN BOWSER: No one knows exactly how many people have been held or are still being held without attorneys.

PAMELA METZGER: We are witnessing the absolute abandonment of the Bill of Rights, not sort of the casual erosion because there wasn't enough money for a public defender. We are witnessing nothing more or less than the national abandonment of a commitment to the Bill of Rights in the state of Louisiana.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: District attorney Eddie Jordan says he appreciates such concerns, but at the same time he doesn't want to see crimes go unpunished.

EDDIE JORDAN: It's true that some of those individuals have fallen through the cracks. And where that is the case, we need to correct that. But we also need to make sure that the system does not release people who are a danger and a threat to the community.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The problem with keeping track of inmates began when the low-lying Orleans Parish Jail was flooded. Inmates had to be hastily evacuated and sent all over the state. Some went to local jails, others to the state-run Department of Corrections.

From his temporary office in an R.V. in the jail's parking lot, Sheriff Marlin Gusman said it was an impossible situation.

MARLIN GUSMAN, Sheriff, New Orleans: We did not have track of everyone. I couldn't tell you where everybody was at. That's why I've had four people working up in the state Department of Corrections office since the storm, keeping track of all of the inmates.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Judge Johnson says it was also a state of mass confusion.

CHIEF JUDGE CALVIN JOHNSON: The guy comes into the jail, and he says his name is Calvin Johnson. They put his name down as K-a-l-v-i-n. And instead of Johnson, it's Johnston. It's Johnston. His date of birth is 1/2/47, and they make it 11/12/46.

In the old system, it would have taken us a day or two to find it, but once everyone's scattered, then that kind of technical mistake, that kind of problem just became exacerbated.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The sheriff says his deputies are now doing a better job of keeping track of inmates. But with jail capacity down and a backlog in the court system, overcrowding is now a problem.

MARLIN GUSMAN: It's a real challenge because, when you experience an event like flooding and water, it does great damage to locking systems, to control systems, and to video, and everything else that you need in order to have a good jail. And what happens is we have to move people around.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All the time?

MARLIN GUSMAN: All the time.

Criminal justice under construction

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another big problem is evidence that sat underwater in rooms at the police station and courthouse for weeks. What remains in the brown, smelly muck is not only important to prosecutors; it's also of interest to the defense attorneys who represent some of the indigent, like Tulane University Law School's Katherine Mattes.

KATHERINE MATTES, Tulane University Law School: Here, see, it says "DNA rapes and DNA homicide." Can you tell me what are in there?

STATE EVIDENCE EMPLOYEE: These are just actually little cards after the testing. We haven't decided if there's anything that can be done with this yet.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Now the evidence is being cleaned and examined to see what is still useable for trials. Recently, there has been some progress. The civil courts are back, although Chief Justice Ethel Simms Julien says there are definite challenges.

CHIEF JUDGE ETHEL SIMMS JULIEN, Chief Judge, New Orleans Civil Court: You have many lawyers who've lost their files, who can't find clients, who their doctors are missing or gone to other places, have lost their records. So it's made it difficult to get trials started again in New Orleans.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On the criminal justice front, Judge Johnson's courthouse is under construction and should be open for business sometime in June.

The state of Louisiana is considering new ways to fund New Orleans' public defender system, which even before Katrina was criticized as one of the worst in the country. And the U.S. Justice Department has also promised funds but, so far, it's only enough to stop the hemorrhaging.