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NEW ORLEANS — In a rebuke of what he called New Orleans’ decades-long refusal to protect the rights of poor defendants, a state judge Friday freed four criminal defendants from jail and postponed their trials until adequate defense counsel can be appointed for them. And District Judge Arthur Hunter warned that more releases could be coming. “The public defender’s office has chronically failed to adequately represent poor defendants,” Hunter said. “It’s only gotten worse since Hurricane Katrina.” Hunter had previously threatened to release defendants because their constitutional right to adequate legal counsel was being violated. The cases had been assigned to the city’s public defender’s office, which has struggled through budget and staff shortfalls since the hurricane struck in August 2005. Before Katrina, the indigent defender program had 70 lawyers, six investigators and six office workers with a $2.2 million annual budget, 75 percent of which was financed by traffic court fines. Now, there are 11 lawyers, two investigators and one office staffer. Most of the staff loss is attributed to employees who evacuated during Katrina and did not return to the city. In addition, funding from traffic fines has dropped sharply since the storm, in part because only about 40 percent of the city’s population has returned. Hunter had tried to subpoena legislators and Gov. Kathleen Blanco to explain why the public defender’s office could not be better funded. All refused to appear arguing the subpoena violated constitutional separation of power. Without an office for months and low on funding, a single lawyer in the program now faces about 130 cases in Hunter’s court alone. There are 12 divisions of criminal court. Friday’s releases followed a motion by Stephen Singer, an assistant professor at Loyola University School of Law who recently was appointed lead trial counsel for the public defender’s office. Singer asked the judge to delay prosecution of the cases until his office has enough lawyers and money to provide effective counsel. District Attorney Eddie Jordan said just over 3,000 cases are currently in the criminal court system. Historically, as many as 90 percent of criminal cases in New Orleans use a public defender, according to the public defender office. However, Jordan questioned Friday’s action by Hunter, saying “Other sections of court have cases where the public defenders are representing defendants and those cases are going forward. What makes his section of court any different?” The indigent defender program has been under fire since the 1970s, as the city’s poverty and crime rates rose. About 15 independent studies done between 1972 and 2006 show the system in constitutionally flawed, Hunter said. Hunter’s move Friday involved three cases of misdemeanor drug possession and a fourth in which the defendant is accused of felony crime against nature. The judge warned that in two weeks, more releases could occur. “This round represents misdemeanors and a minor felony. But let me caution, the Constitution does not distinguish between minor and serious charges,” Hunter said. Hunter also ordered the public defender’s office to come up with a date when it will no longer be able to accept additional cases. Rafael Goyeneche, executive director of the private, nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, called on the Legislature and the governor to take steps to resolve the issue. “If justice cannot be obtained in Orleans Parish because of the failure to adequately fund the public defender’s office, it places in doubt the city’s ability to recover from the storm.” “If the public does not have confidence that the justice system works, why would they want to return?

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