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Monday, October 31, 2005

The Judicial Cost of Hurricane Katrina

October 30, 2005

Katrina still threatens 3,000 New Orleans court cases
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Like the city's crumbled levees and gutted homes, New Orleans' courts have been reduced to shambles — and the chaos could jeopardize many of the 3,000 cases pending before Hurricane Katrina hit.

In his third day back on the bench since the hurricane struck two months ago, Criminal District Judge Benedict Willard opens court by entering a plea of his own — for patience.

"We're going to do as much as we can, with the limited resources," Willard says of this battered city's struggle to resuscitate a justice system crippled by the monster storm.

With the criminal courthouse still mired in muck, Willard presides at the old parish jail in a room once used for witnesses to identify criminal suspects in lineups. One-inch hash marks for measuring height dot the wall behind his small office desk. Attorneys sit in folding chairs.

Two defense lawyers for men jailed on drug charges before the storm ask for reduced bail and to see evidence against their clients. But the lawyers don't know which jails now hold the evacuated, absent defendants. And evidence rooms in the courthouse remain a swampy mess.

So Willard postpones hearing their motions. In 20 minutes, he's done all he can — until his next court session Nov. 14, when he hopes there will be less confusion and disarray and perhaps more lawyers and defendants needed to conduct the court's business.

"There's always a new roadblock, a new problem people didn't foresee," says Willard, who presides in a denim shirt and jeans, with no robe. "It's broke, but I think we're repairing it."

Judges, prosecutors and clerks displaced from the damaged courthouse are scattered from French Quarter hotels to a Baton Rouge college campus.

Other courts have been affected, too. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, has temporarily relocated to Houston, 350 miles to the west. Its courthouse suffered little damage but court officials say they need hotel rooms and other amenities that remain in short supply here for visiting attorneys.

In the flooded basement of the criminal courthouse, guns, drugs and other evidence soaked for weeks and could be ruined. Witnesses and defendants alike fled the city to far-flung refuges. The fraction of New Orleans' 475,000 residents who returned aren't nearly enough to fill jury pools. Judges are holding court without dockets, hearing whatever attorneys happen to show up.

"I can't file subpoenas, I can't file motions, I can't get a jury trial, I can't cross-examine witnesses right now, I can't review the evidence," said Rick Teissier, a New Orleans criminal defense lawyer. "It's all been destroyed."

Obstacles threaten to trip the courts at every step — overdue bail hearings for defendants jailed before the storm, trials delayed as clerks try to salvage evidence and prosecutors track down witnesses, appeals resting on records that may have been destroyed.

Judges and lawyers fear they could be forced to scrap some cases altogether for lack of evidence and testimony, leaving them no choice but to turn accused criminals loose.

"That's a nightmare scenario no one in their right mind could possibly want," said Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie J. Jordan Jr. "I think it may very well be possible in some cases, but it's still too early to say."

Prosecutors have their own problems. The cash-strapped city, which pays for roughly one-third of the district attorney's budget, has failed to fund the prosecutor's office for the last three months of the year. Mayor Ray Nagin says the city is broke.

While a backlog of cases piles up, Jordan says he's been forced to make money his top priority. He's laid off 57 support staffers, from clerical workers to investigators, and his office hasn't paid its phone bill in months. If the budget crunch spills into next year, he says, attorneys may be axed as well.

In addition to the 3,000 cases pending in Orleans Parish before Katrina hit, Jordan's staff — working with laptops in a French Quarter hotel suite — still are screening pre-hurricane arrests for possible prosecutions while taking in 20 to 30 new arrest reports each day.

Meanwhile, there may be fewer attorneys for defendants who need them.

"There are guys I know that are quitting the practice of law," said New Orleans attorney Kevin Boshea. "There are guys that are emptying their whole client list."

Before trials can resume, court officials will have to hire salvage experts to determine how much evidence they can save from the seven evidence and records rooms in the courthouse basement, where the water covered nearly everything in mold and slime.

Floors have become a filthy mess of soaked papers and boxes. Evidence from guitars to crowbars and car fenders is covered in grime, its value in court unknown. Guns have rusted and drugs disintegrated from water seeping into their plastic bags. Records dating back 70 years are warped and smothered in green spores.

"Nothing floated away — that's the No. 1 good news," said Kimberly Williamson Butler, the criminal court clerk.

Rusted or not, Butler says, guns and other weapons should still be admissible in court. Drugs are another story. She found one plastic bag containing crack cocaine that had swollen into a water balloon of black liquid.

"I'm neither judge nor jury, but it would seem to me a rusty gun is still a good piece of evidence," Butler said. "If you used a weapon, I don't have good news for you. But with the drugs, cocaine and water is not a good combination."

Records dealing with unresolved trials were kept upstairs, beyond reach of the floodwater. But even though documents in the swampy basement were all from closed cases, convictions could be jeopardized if flooding destroyed records of a particular trial.

"If the appellate courts don't have a record to review, then they'll probably order retrials," said Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. "If the evidence is lost, misplaced or destroyed, then (defendants) are probably going to be released back to the streets."

There are signs of progress.

Space for 800 prisoners opened Oct. 17 at the House of Detention, the old jailhouse still stained by a grimy flood mark 4 feet above ground. That enabled jailers to move out of the Union Passenger Terminal train and bus station, where they'd been booking and detaining prisoners since Katrina passed.

Judges are holding daily bail hearings and scheduling dockets for November. Some say jury trials could resume as early as February.

"We have experienced, for the first time in this country, a nuclear winter," said Chief Judge Calvin Johnson of the Criminal District Court. "This justice system has had to overcome issues no other justice system in this country has had to deal with."
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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