December 14, 2006
Representing Criminal Defendants in New Orleans: Student Cavalry Is Coming
Posted by Alan Childress
An interesting and inspirational holiday-time story here in The National Law Journal, "A 'Big Easy' Mission That Won't Be So Easy." That at the bottom becomes infuriating. It is about the efforts of the Tulane criminal defense clinic's work to represent accused clients against the flood (sorry to use the ambiguous term "flood") of backlogged and waterlogged cases post-Katrina. They are now being joined by 150 students from several law schools volunteering their post-exam vacations away to pitch in. We previously posted here on the defense crisis and the efforts of Tulane's Pam Metzger and Katherine Mattes and others -- as well as Loyola's Steve Singer and the Student Hurricane Network here -- to alleviate the problem and coordinate student help. We particularly noted here the generous contribution of 70+ McGeorge law students and alumni PDs (now that's a flood), and the NLJ story recognizes that and plenty more. Such laudatory and educational efforts have the side benefit of being fun, or at least it looks that way as to Golden Gate students here. We'll try to track down some student accounts of the current cavalry.
One sentence in the NLJ story that would have been amusing had it not been infuriating: a quote from a local assistant DA that tries to blame the backlog on defense tactics of delay, and pitches Katrina as some kind of excuse for that. "It's about people wanting to do the work," he said. "It's the best strategy for a defense attorney to delay and we think that is what is happening. They have investigators and a public defender in each court. A lawyer just needs to pick up a file and read it and determine what should be done." Pick up a file? What lawyer? Where files? The disarray of evidence and numbers of PDs don't match up to such blameshifting.
Tell it to the defendants who waited more time in jail than their possible sentences would be and were only let out when the few defense attorneys made the motions. Tell it to the handful of paid PDs who are struggling to do the work of what 100 should be doing. Tell it to the state and federal governments who have not treated this aspect as a national crisis and shame, deserving massive attention and funds -- all while we criticize other countries for their broken justice systems or pretend that the only Americans languishing in jail awaiting representation are enemy combatants. This country should not need student volunteers to provide what Gideon guaranteed its citizens over 40 years ago.
I understand that public-posturing DAs are supposed to blame everything on defense attorneys and that is ' how convenient' talk from him. But not only does it ignore the reality of missing evidence and witnesses and a tireless and sacrificing skeletal crew of PDs -- as well as diminish the sacrifice of students like these -- but it lets the rest of us off the hook for our obligation to keep the pressure on, everywhere, to fix a broken system that cannot be blamed on the sloth of its finest contributors. Put another way, if this prosecutor believes that justice is being delayed as a defense strategy, let him support bills in the government, and motions in the court, to pour some minimal money into the system to hire defense attorneys to take up the slack he seems to observe.
In heartless Pottersville, they may lock up accused neighbors for months beyond their possible sentences and tell them a lawyer will get to their case if one ever gets hired. And then try to blame it on Jimmy Stewart for his carelessness and inattention. We deserve better, at least an attempt to act more like how Bedford Falls would.
I got over my tiff by assuming the DA guy was quoted out of context--no one is that tone deaf to this disaster--and by watching this 30-second Cliff-notes version of a movie of It's A Wonderful Life, told all in bunnies. I thought there's more to the movie than that but this seems to capture it quite efficiently. [All bunny clips here; I like The Big Chill and Pulp Fiction in Bun-O-Vision too.] Looking forward to the real deal on TV this time of year, and they play To Kill A Mockingbird too. What would Atticus Finch do? I bet he'd pick up a file and read it. I hope the assistant DA doesn't think it's called How To Kill A Mockingbird.
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