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New Orleans Struggles to Rebuild Justice System after Hurricane Katrina

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.

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  • 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.

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