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New Orleans's Criminal Justice Crisis May Lead to Murder and Rape Suspects Going Free

A local judge says he's had enough with the city's failure to provide lawyers for poor defendants.

Spencer Woodman

On March 5, 2013, an 18-year-old high school student from New Orleans named Henry Campbell was arrested and booked into the local jail on a first-degree rape charge. Unable to afford a lawyer, Campbell was assigned a public defender, who his family hoped would put assemble a robust defense and convince a jury of the teen's innocence.

Now 21, Campbell finds himself at the center of a spiraling criminal justice nightmare: The suspect is among a group of seven pretrial inmates a judge ordered released on Friday due to a massive failure to provide attorneys for poor suspects. (The seven men are still being held, as prosecutors have ten days to appeal.) The charges Campbell faces are severe, of course, and if convicted, he could face a mandatory life sentence behind bars, according to his new lawyer. But New Orleans's notoriously overburdened public defender's office struggled for many months to provide Campbell anything resembling an adequate defense, says his mother, Lynell Jones. As those months stretched into years, Campbell waited in jail, his fate hanging in limbo. He was repeatedly shifted between different prosecutors and public defenders, causing the attorneys to have to start over, his mother adds, and sometimes officials didn't even show up to his pretrial hearings, prolonging things still further.

"Every time we tried to get any information, they would say, 'Oh I'm not on the case anymore,'" Jones says, "or, 'Sorry you need to talk to someone else.' It was always a runaround."

As of today—well over 1000 days after his arrest—Campbell has been convicted of no crime but is still locked in jail, unable to afford his nearly $800,000 bond. And his case is no closer to trial than it was three years ago; in fact, it might be further than ever. Last month, due to an intense budget squeeze, the public defender's office withdrew from Campbell's case altogether, according to his new attorney, Gregory Carter. Although a judge quickly appointed Carter, a private lawyer who was willing to offer his time for free, the state had exactly zero dollars for the man to hire an investigator, conduct forensic testing or pay for transcripts.

The attorney adds that, without funds to for these essential tools, he has no way of mounting a real case. "It would be unethical to proceed without any funds to mount a defense," Carter says, describing himself as Campbell's lawyer in name only. "This is impossible to do without an investigator."

Henry Campbell isn't alone, either.

In January, the New Orleans public defender's office made headlines when it announced that, due to a crippling budget shortfall, it would have to begin refusing to represent defendants facing serious felony charges. That's why Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter took the extraordinary step on Friday of ordering the release of Campbell, along with six other men awaiting trial for serious felonies.

"The defendants' constitutional rights are not contingent on budget demands, waiting lists and the failure of the Legislature to adequately fund indigent defense," wrote Hunter, who asserted that the seven inmates had been denied both their Sixth Amendment right to adequate counsel and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. "Merely appointing private attorneys is not the solution. As a matter of fact, the appointment of private attorneys without adequate resources to represent their clients makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel."

Judge Hunter's decision represents the latest breaking point in a rolling crisis of indigent defense in Louisiana, where meager funding has forced court-appointed attorneys across the state into triage mode. "New Orleans is the tip of the iceberg," says Pamela Metzger, a Tulane Law professor, who filed the motion to free Campbell and the six other pretrial inmates. "This is happening all across the state."

According to Metzger, a small and informal coalition of criminal justice advocates in Louisiana often drive hours across the state to other jurisdictions that, like New Orleans, have left some low-income defendants unrepresented as they languish in jail awaiting trial. She adds that, in recent years, she and other lawyers have filed numerous so-called habeas petitions, which can assert that an inmate is being held wrongfully and should be released. Metzger says that, just last Tuesday, she was in Jena, Louisiana, where some pretrial inmates had been held essentially without defense counsel since September due to a conflict of interest among lawyers.

Although Louisiana's indigent defense crisis is among the country's most dire, advocates say the state legislature has eyed another potentially massive round of budget cuts that could lead to the wholesale collapse of indigent defense. Still, on Friday, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office briskly condemned Judge Hunter's order to release the seven inmates, arguing he "believes that releasing defendants charged with serious acts of violence poses a clear and present danger to public safety, and he intends to appeal the ruling," according to the New Orleans Advocate.

All of the seven New Orleans inmates are awaiting trial for violent crimes, including armed robbery, aggravated assault and second-degree murder. (Campbell also faces obscenity and battery charges, the latter stemming from an alleged encounter with a corrections officer.) Siding with prosecutors, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu called Judge Hunter's order a "miscarriage of justice on all sides."

Unsurprisingly, the release order also upset victims' families.

"It's just hard to hear this guy's going to be walking the streets because of a technicality," Myra Gary, whose brother was allegedly murdered by one of the seven men, told the Advocate. "How are we violating their constitutional rights when they took someone's life? They violated their own rights by breaking the law."

For his part, Carter says he will not stop if the higher court delivers an unfavorable ruling. "If this goes to the appellate court, we will take our argument there as well," he tells me. "These men are sitting in cages with no one on their side."

Metzger anticipates that the effort to free the men could make its way to federal court, potentially carrying national implications. "We're arguing that the legislature's funding failures cannot hold the Sixth Amendment hostage," she says. "That means that you either provide the money for a defense or let people go. It's actually very simple."

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