Editorial: Problems with indigent defense must be addressed now

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.