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Editorial: Problems with indigent defense must be addressed now

Last Modified: Wednesday, May 08, 2013 10:00 PM

Last month’s ruling by the nation’s highest court on a case in which the defendant and the victim’s family waited seven years before he was convicted of murder speaks volumes about the often glacier-like slow movement of justice in Calcasieu Parish.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court, denied an appeal on behalf of Jonathan Boyer, who was convicted in 2009 of second-degree murder, armed robbery and use of a firearm. Boyer appealed for a new trial, in part, because of the long wait for his trial. He was originally arrested and charged in 2002 with first-degree murder, making him eligible, if convicted, for a death penalty. But lack of funding for the local Public Defenders Office made it difficult for the office to provide two certified attorneys as required by state law.

Boyer’s charges were ultimately reduced. Convicted, he is now serving a life sentence.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the long delay in bringing Boyer to trial was not just the fault of the state of Louisiana, adding that the largest share of the blame fell on defense requests for continuances, other defense motions and delays caused by Hurricane Rita.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the minority opinion that, ‘‘The Court’s silence in this case is particularly unfortunate. Conditions of this kind cannot persist without endangering constitutional rights.’’ She added that the case ‘‘appears to be illustrative of larger, systemic problems in Louisiana.’’

That problem is the habitual underfunding of indigent defense in Louisiana, and, in particular, by the state. At one point, each local PDO attorney was saddled with more than 400 cases, twice the maximum caseload that is recommended. And in the last few months, the office has had to lay off attorneys and curtail training because of lack of money.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board requested $42 million to help adequately fund the 42 PDOs around the state in the current state budget. It received $33.3 million.

‘‘This is an essential, constitutionally mandated responsibility of the state that would take less than an additional $10 million to fix,’’ says local attorney Walt Sanchez. ‘‘This is an incredibly small percentage of the state budget, but a massive shortfall within the indigent defense system.’’

Sadly, there are few advocates for people who are accused of a crime and cannot afford an attorney. This lack of funding from the state speaks to a larger problem — a presumption of guilt rather than a presumption of innocence for the accused and a disregard for the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, in part, guarantees the accused the right to a speedy trial and counsel for a defense.

Local PDOs are also funded by court costs and traffic ticket fines, but those are often inconsistent and unreliable.

The pressure is coming from all sides. Sanchez notes that where once a public defender’s caseload consisted of two-thirds misdemeanors and one-third felonies, that ratio has now been reversed. He adds that felony cases normally require many more hours of preparation for counsel.

There have been marginal gains in the backlog of cases assigned to the local PDO in recent months, thanks primarily to members of the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association taking on pro bono cases. But it’s akin to shoveling a mound of dirt with a teaspoon.

The Boyer case offers another opportunity for all parties that have a vested interest in the 14th Judicial District Court — the local PDO, the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Office, members of the local bench, law enforcement and the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association — to put aside their normal adversarial positions, come to the table and develop well thought-out and long-term solutions to providing timely and effective counsel to the accused who cannot afford an attorney.

The local bar should take the lead in calling and mediating such meetings. And woe be unto to any party that refuses to participate or doesn’t provide good-faith solutions, because they will surely inhabit the losing side in the court of public opinion.

• • •

This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

Posted By: Bill malley On: 5/10/2013

Title: Louisiana ( a different country)

Please re-read Walt Sanchez's comment! Less ten million additional dollars needed to help those individuals that are innocent & cannot afford an attorney. The Louisiana laws are unconstitutional ! A travesty to the whole judicial system! Something has to be done about how these people are railroading inmates by keeping them in the jails for lengthy periods of times due lack of PDO' s available & the inexperience of most. I was in the courtroom a few days ago & was astounded how the PDO's did not even know what their "clients" we're charged for! Granted, their are many guilty individuals in the prison system, however there are also those that are innocent ! Heads up to Walt Sanchez for bringing this problem to everyone attention!

Posted By: Daniel Kramer On: 5/9/2013

Title: Equal Funding

We ought to amend the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 to require equal funding for District Attorneys and PDOs. Citizens, innocent until proven guilty, would be justified in demanding this.

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