Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Let Us Now Praise Non-Famous Men


Hurricane Katrina took his house, his courtroom and, Judge Arthur L. Hunter Jr. says, his faith in the way his city treats poor people facing criminal charges.

Nine months after the storm, more than a thousand jailed defendants have had no access to lawyers, the judge says, because the public defender system is desperately short of money and staffing, without a computer system or files or even a list of clients.

And so Judge Hunter, 46, a former New Orleans police officer, is moving to let some of the defendants without lawyers out of jail. He has suspended prosecutions in most cases involving public defenders. And, alone among a dozen criminal court judges, he has granted a petition to free a prisoner facing serious charges without counsel, and is considering others.

It is, he said in an interview, his duty under the Constitution. "Something needs to be done, it's that simple," he said. "I'm the lightning rod, yes."
How bad is it?

Handcuffed, shackled and wearing jailhouse orange, Mr. Dunn told the court that as the water rose, he spent four frightening days without food in the House of Detention, and was then moved from prison to prison, losing touch with his family.

In the nine months since the hurricane, he said, he has never even spoken to a lawyer. "I don't have a lawyer," Mr. Dunn said. "I never been to court." Without a lawyer a defendant cannot even plead guilty.

Pamela R. Metzger, the director of the Criminal Court Clinic at Tulane Law School, has petitioned the court to release Mr. Dunn and more than a dozen other poor prisoners in similar circumstances. Releasing them would not hamper the prosecution, she argued, and would give them an opportunity to try to gather evidence in their own defense. And, she said later, "to be free from imprisonment and punishment without due process of law."

But David S. Pipes, an assistant district attorney, argued against releasing Mr. Dunn, whom he described as a five-time felon. (Court documents show that Mr. Dunn has been arrested 10 times since 1990 and has pleaded guilty to previous drug and theft charges.)

More broadly, Mr. Pipes said: "The proper solution for someone who does not have an attorney is to get them an attorney. Releasing them does not cure anything and does not protect their rights."
One has to wonder how a defendant's rights are protected when there is no possibility of appointing a lawyer, and when defendants can't even become defendants because there is no one to enter a plea for them. And what is being said about this courageous judge?

"I don't have any problem with what he's trying to do there," said Rafael C. Goyeneche III, president of the [independent Metropolitan Crime] commission. "He's demanding that it function properly."


"You have to have some guy out there rattling the saber, absolutely," Judge Johnson said. "I think the message was loud, clear and necessary."

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