November 14, 2005

New Orleans judge orders action on stalled cases

By Kevin Krolicki

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A New Orleans judge on Monday
ordered the release of two people arrested before Hurricane
Katrina but never charged and threatened to free 21 other
suspects this week if the city's crippled criminal justice
system does not get moving.

The man and woman, arrested for marijuana possession and
attempted theft, were the first suspected criminals ordered
released in New Orleans because of delays caused by the August
29 storm that flooded the city and brought local government to
its knees.

Many more suspects could go free as the district attorney's
office struggles with a backlog of 3,000 criminal cases from
before Katrina, unable to process them because of damaged
evidence or vanished witnesses who fled the storm.

The public defender has argued that prosecutors must bring
charges in hundreds of those pending cases or agree to free the
defendants who are languishing in jail without having had their
legally entitled day in court. The charges range from
shoplifting to attempted murder.

Louisiana legal deadlines for prosecutors to pursue cases
-- 60 days for a suspected felony and 45 days in misdemeanors
-- have passed, despite an earlier extension granted by the
state Supreme Court.

Prosecutors have pleaded for time, citing the difficulty of
evaluating cases with a skeleton staff working from their cars
and temporary offices at a French Quarter hotel.

District Attorney Eddie Jordan saw 20 percent of staff
attorneys resign and had to fire 80 percent of other staff,
including investigators, due to the city's budget crunch.


Judge Gerard Hansen, ruling on Monday in makeshift quarters
at a card table at the city jail, freed the man and woman
immediately, saying they had already served more time than if
they had been tried and convicted.

He gave prosecutors until Wednesday to say whether they
would press ahead with cases against 21 suspected felons who
have been jailed since summer.

"If you don't set deadlines, the process will not move,"
Hansen said after the court session.

Jordan, who attended Hansen's hearing, said his office
would not back off any prosecutions, including the drug cases
that represent the bulk of the backlog.

"Some of these drug offenders are repeat and habitual
offenders, and they need to go to jail for a very long time and
we're certainly not going to let them use this as an excuse to
escape accountability," Jordan told Reuters.

Public defender Dwight Doskey called Hansen's ruling a
limited victory.

"By filing these motions, we at least got the district
attorney's office working again," he said outside the court.

Judge Hansen said it will be a while before New Orleans
justice gets backs to normal.

"I don't think our criminal justice system will be up and
running as it was for another six months to two years," he