News 11.24.15

New Orleans Public Defenders Ask Judge to Halt New Case Assignments

On Friday New Orleans Deputy District Defender Jee Park asked a judge to stop assigning new criminal cases to the Orleans Parish Defenders Office until their existing caseload is significantly reduced, according to the

Times-Picayune

. Park told Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter that the city’s public defenders are so overwhelmed with cases that any more would jeopardize the quality of their services and put at risk the constitutional rights of defendants.

Park told the

Times-Picayune

that the office seeks a court order because, if defenders refuse more cases, they risk being held in contempt of court.

According to Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton, the Orleans Parish Defenders Office “handles more than 20,000 criminal cases – including 8,000 felonies – each year, and represents about 85 percent of the parish’s felony criminal defendants,” reports the

Times-Picayune

.

Innocence Project Co-Founder and Co-Director Barry Scheck spoke out in support of the defenders via video conferencing for a hearing held on Monday, urging Judge Hunter to grant a moratorium on new case assignments.

“They are very, very smart lawyers,” Scheck told the judge, according to the

Times-Picayune

. “But they’re totally overburdened and they can’t do the things they know they need to be doing. This really is a situation that poses an imminent danger to clients. And it is the judiciary’s right to have cases before it that are adequately prepared so that you can make proper decisions.”

Ellen Yaroshefsky, professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and executive director of the Jacob Burns Ethics Center also testified.

“I’m very troubled by the situation this public defenders office is in,” said Yaroshefsky, according to the

Times-Picayune

. “To call this a ‘justice system’ is really a misnomer. . . . I believe this entire office is operating as a conflict of interest. The lawyers here are compromising some clients in other to represent others. They make a decision to triage, and triage is a conflict of interest. This is a problem now that is a judicial problem, and I believe needs to be dealt with on that level.”

Scheck said, “There is no question that indigent defense and inadequate lawyers are among the biggest contributors to wrongful convictions . . . . This has enormous impact on public safety. Because whenever there is a wrongful conviction, the person who really committed the crime is still out there,” reported the

Times-Picayune

.

Judge Hunter said he will give the office until December 11 to prove that they comply with the American Bar Association’s guidelines for relief of excessive workloads.

See the

Times-Picayune

coverage

here

and

here

.

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