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After years of trying to wring money out of the state, the head of the Louisiana agency that finances the defense of indigent criminal defendants announced on Aug. 24 that he will step down at the end of the year. The Louisiana Indigent Defense Assistance Board was created in 1994 as a branch of the state supreme court and became part of the executive branch three years later. Director Jelpi Picou Jr. has been with the board since it was established. The board does not directly represent any individual, but instead helps finance the 41 local indigent defense agencies throughout the state. The agencies, in turn, pay private lawyers to represent poor people charged with crimes. Appointed layers represent indigent defendants where there is no public defender, where there is a conflict of interest — such as two or more defendants — and in capital cases. MORE ASSIGNMENTS, SAME FUNDING Each year, Picou struggled to have the state appropriate enough money to pay for all the lawyers he needed to successfully carry out his assigned tasks. The funds remained more or less constant, however, while the board was expected to do more, a New Orleans Times Picayune report states. Picou had asked the legislature for $10.6 million, but only received $7.5 million. To make matters worse, lawmakers gave the board the additional task of funding post-conviction appeals in capital cases, without increasing the board’s budget. Picou estimates this will take 10 percent from his already overburdened budget. The board’s funding problems have caused trial delays. Last year, for example, attorneys in several cases asked judges to postpone trials until the money matters were resolved, according to a Baton Rouge Advocate story. It now appears that the funding problems may have another, more serious effect: lawyer attrition. Take the case of two attorneys who represented defendant Daniel Blank, a man convicted on two murder charges. The lawyers say they will not represent him in several upcoming murder trials because they are not getting paid. Attorneys Glenn Cortello and Andy Van Dyke asked to withdraw from Blank’s upcoming Nov. 2 trial. The lawyers each spent about two months on the two previous trials, both of which resulted in death sentences. Cortello said the board still owes him for expenses and witness fees from the grueling trials. “It’s not uncommon in a capital case for a lawyer to put in 18 hours a day. And while you have all these expenses going on, your practice is suffering,” he added. The board pays lawyers $57.65 per hour in capital cases, versus $35 per hour in court and $25 per hour out of court in non-capital cases. Prosecutors said some of the first-degree murder charges against Blank might be reduced, thus reducing the payment to the defense attorneys in Blank’s upcoming murder trial. Picou said he is leaving because he cannot provide adequate defenses with inadequate funding. “The main sticking point is that the indigent defense system in Louisiana is woefully underfunded. With very limited funds, we have to make difficult decisions about where the funds will go,” he said. The board’s nine directors are searching for a replacement for Picou and hope to have someone in place before he leaves. The board’s vice chairman, former state Sen. Thomas Casey, said Picou is “probably one of the best public servants I have ever worked with.” Picou, who worked for the state supreme court before heading the board, said he would remain involved in the field of indigent defense in some form.

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