Judge rules DA can subpoena state board

By By John Guidroz / American Press

Judge David Ritchie ruled on Tuesday that Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Office can issue two subpoenas asking the state

Public Defender Board to release specific information on how it spends its money.

The subpoenas were based on the

financial struggles facing the Calcasieu Public Defenders Office. The

office is searching

for funds to pay for expert witnesses in the case of Barbara

Vincent, who is charged with second-degree murder in connection

with the 2008 death of 5-year-old Savannah Vincent. The child was

hospitalized with blunt force trauma to the head and died

two days later.

Hugo Holland Jr., special assistant district attorney, said a lawyer may decide that an expert witness is needed to testify.

But, he said, the PDO can’t afford expert witnesses and has even had to get some lawyers to handle cases for free.

“If the lawyer needs (money) to pay for

an expert witness, and the public defender can’t pay for a lawyer fee,

how is he supposed

to pay for an expert,” Holland said.

The PDO — which is funded through state

dollars and local court fees — had its state funding cut by $500,000

within one year,

Holland said. He said the money the state Legislature appropriates

for indigent defense has grown from $7.5 million in 2003,

to $35 million this year — a 450 percent increase. The money is

disbursed by the state Public Defender Board.

“Nobody has suggested there has been that kind of increase in the number of cases handled around the state, or (that) the

quality of indigent defense has increased that much,” he said. “What are you doing with the (money)? That’s the issue.”

Jay Dixon, head of the Calcasieu PDO, told the American Press earlier this month that the budget is $1.8 million, but the PDO needs $2.4 million annually to “really operate effectively.”

The PDO budget for this fiscal year was nearly $250,000 short, which lead to five attorneys being cut. Cases were given to

members of the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association to be worked for free.

Despite the increase in overall state money, the local PDOs have never been adequately funded to deliver the level of legal

representation required for certain cases, said Walt Sanchez, Dixon’s attorney. He said the state Legislature oversees how

the board spends its money.

“There’s no (local) money unless people

are convicted,” Sanchez said. “If (Dixon) is counting on traffic

tickets, he doesn’t

know how much he will get until he opens the envelope. The (Public

Defender) Board can’t lobby for the true amount of money

they need. The decision is made on political consideration, not

case loads or rational decisions.”

Another subpoena involves non-profit

organizations, which Holland said were created by people who are against

capital punishment.

He said the Public Defender Board has contracted with them to

provide capital defense services around the state. This year,

he said $9.3 million of the state money is going to seven

non-profit organizations to handle “50 or less cases per year.”

Sanchez said some of the information requested in the subpoenas cannot be disclosed because it is tied to representing certain

clients.

“Their subpoenas requested information protected by attorney-client privilege,” he said. “They are so broad. They wanted to

know every expenditure of funds, and which client that expenditure was for. There’s a massive constitutional overlay that

those subpoenas just ignore.”

Ritchie’s ruling calls for the subpoenas to be heard by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal to double check whether the local

district attorney’s office can ask for that specific financial information. Sanchez said the funding issue should be heard

in court in East Baton Rouge Parish — where the Public Defender Board is located.

The other defenders included attorneys

Rudie Soileau, who represented the Public Defender Board; and Mark

Cunningham, representing

the non-profit agencies.