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Victims of Post-Hurricane Katrina Justice System Get Help From Law Students

Pam Metzger was exhausted — physically, mentally and emotionally.

She had just moved her husband and two children from New Orleans to her parents' house in Atlanta to escape Hurricane Katrina. Not only did she have to leave her job and home in Uptown, but her husband David had to abandon his newly opened white-collar criminal practice. Both were worried about their 8-year-old son, Cole, who had walking pneumonia.

In December, while her kids went to school in Atlanta, Metzger began commuting — at her own expense — to the Tulane Law Clinic in New Orleans, where she served as director. Her clinic had been appointed to handle the cases of all prisoners in New Orleans parish who were not represented by an attorney.

Click on FOXNews.com's Natural Disaster Center for more on Hurricane Katrina's Aftermath

Thus began her students' foray into a New Orleans justice system ravaged by Katrina.

"I couldn't imagine taking one more thing on my plate and although I didn't realize it at the time, part of what I was resisting was not the work ... I couldn't handle anymore people and their problems," Metzger explained. "The thought of taking on more work of that kind … I just didn't think I could do it."

In February, the law clinic students visited an inmate in a prison in Concordia, La. Many New Orleans prisoners were transferred there after the Orleans Parish jail was damaged by the storm. It's there they heard the stories of hundreds of mostly poor people simply lost in the system.

"Part of what blew us away when we got up there, we just met person after person after person who had never seen a lawyer, who had no idea what they were in jail for ... and to the extent they did, they were wrong, to a point. People didn't even know if their families were dead," Metzger said. "The students kept saying, 'How can we not do something?'"

Despite the fatigue from her personal Katrina ordeal, Metzger — who describes herself as "the sickest, most die-hard kind of fighter" — couldn't turn a blind eye to what she viewed as the demoralizing, hurtful, unconstitutional state of the New Orleans justice system.

Some New Orleans prisoners were in jail for violent offenses but some were there for months after they should have been released — otherwise known as doing "Katrina time." Not only had many not seen a lawyer in months but others hadn't received a word when — if ever — they would get a hearing. Still others were sick and needed to be placed in a hospital or mental facility.

"The amount of human suffering was staggering," Metzger said. "Without exception, we were the only lawyers they had seen since they were evacuated."

About 80 percent of New Orleans defendants are supposed to be represented by the public defender's office, which is nearly three-quarters supported by traffic court fines, tickets and fees — all of which evaporated after Katrina, along with the people. The office went from having 42 lawyers to fewer than 10 after the storm — many low paid and part time. It didn't have the manpower nor the funds to visit and represent inmates scattered across the state. Defenders are stretched thin enough trying to defend people the district attorney has decided to prosecute. Even before the storm, the justice system was severely lacking.

District Judge Arthur Hunter recently suspended prosecution of cases where defendants were represented by public defenders. Saying their rights have been violated and the courts can't support jailing defendants without proper representation, Hunter may release scores of inmates Tuesday — the one-year anniversary of when Katrina landed.

A U.S. Department of Justice study recently found that besides a reliable source of money, the New Orleans public defender's office needs at least $10 million to operate for a year, hiring 70 full-time attorneys, along with support staff, and getting a computer system to track cases.

Until that happens, the Tulane students are helping fill in the gaps.

They've been meeting with inmates, fighting for access to evidence rooms, making lists of people who should be released for reasons such as having overstayed their sentences — some just because there were no buses to take them from the jails — people held on charges that were dismissed months ago, or were being held because they didn't pay certain fines or fees. They even contacted the Red Cross to see whether the inmates' families were dead or alive.

Now they're getting a chance to do more litigation on the underlying issues as to why the inmates were in prison in the first place.

Throwing herself into that work is what made Metzger believe that perhaps the Crescent City justice system could rise from the ruins and be something better than it was before Katrina hit.

"I actually believe in the Constitution; I always wanted to be a public defender when I was a kid because I thought it was the most noble thing you could do. I thought that what had happened to the legal system was going to break my heart. I didn't think I would get that article of faith back and I did," Metzger said. "Sometimes it really is true that fighting the fight is what makes you feel better."

When Does Katrina 'Cease to Be An Excuse?'

Third-year law student Jason Hammer, 27, was one of about 75 new student attorneys from Tulane sworn in by New Orleans Chief Justice Pascal Calogero on Friday at the Supreme Court building in the French Quarter. It was the first swearing-in ceremony there since Katrina hit.

Hammer, who has been working with Metzger on freeing inmates, is also heavily involved in litigation over the public defender's funding that would set up an independent system to give that office the resources it needs — more than just parking ticket money — to properly represent the indigent and do battle against the more powerful city prosecutors. Katrina helped the case to be made that the public defender's office simply cannot be funded the way it traditionally has been.

"I think Katrina exposed so many of the bedrock weaknesses that it created an opportunity to fix things and to do this correctly," Hammer said. "There are a huge number of opportunities that came out of Katrina and if we do this correctly, New Orleans could be a great city."

After attending Loyola College in Chicago, he came to New Orleans in 2002 — a city his new friends described as a "third-world country" — and was working his way through his undergraduate studies at Tulane with a computer job at the law school. Later, in his obituary-type personal statement attached to his law-school application, Hammer wrote that during his life, he got elected district attorney and sought to increase funding for indigent defense in order to give everyone a shot at justice.

"The point is not to convict everybody who's ever been accused of a crime ... otherwise, we might as well lock up everybody the police pick up," Hammer told FOXNews.com. "The district attorney's job is to get criminals off the street, once they're convicted. His job is to seek justice for victims of crime."

It's because of that conviction that even after evacuating from New Orleans the day before Katrina hit, having his near-campus apartment destroyed and spending the fall semester at Northwestern University law school in Chicago, Hammer came back to Tulane. At the time, his parents couldn't understand why.

"They of course had seen the news and what New Orleans was portrayed as and they were very concerned about the state of the city and its prospects," said Hammer.

Hammer had been helping a Tulane professor with a program called From the Lake to the River, which was heavily involved in housing issues by getting trailers for people and benefits for others, and "sort of keeping FEMA's feet to the fire and making sure they're following their own rules," Hammer said.

He spent the summer "trying to save the world," helping the law clinic argue cases as to why list-upon-list of inmates should be released from jail. He said he was "amazed" at how broken the system was.

"It was so far beyond my comprehension that something like this could happen given all the protections we're supposed to have under the Constitution, let alone Louisiana law ... no one else [like the U.S. Justice Department] was out there kind of leading the charge," Hammer said. "It's got to be done, someone really needs to be out here. I would hate if I were ever to be picked up by the police and lost in jail, and that's why it mattered to me."

Hammer said the first time he got someone out of jail, "it was a really good day."

"I know personally, I felt grand, on top of the world. It was kind of — the summer can only go downhill from here because we won," said Hammer, who, along with Metzger, say they try not to get too optimistic about their small victories, since they're used to disappointments.

As the summer went on, the Tulane students realized that the lists of people who were in prison without just cause and who needed mental or physical help was endless.

"At what point does Katrina cease to become an excuse?" Hammer asked. "Some days it is impossible to be optimistic all the time but every day in the city on a number of different levels, you can see progress being made … it's easier to keep moving and keep contributing your part to that progress."

One damper to that optimism, from Hammer and the law clinic's viewpoint, is the work the district attorney is doing with many more resources than the public defender's office. Hammer thinks that with defense resources stretched so thin, there should be an increased focus on convicting the hard-core criminals.

"When I came to law school, I don't think I was a wide-eyed naïve kid but at the same time, I thought people in public service had a little more integrity in convictions — don't put people in jail that don't belong there," he said. "At some point, you have to stop going after the sidewalk spitters and go after the murderers."

Hammer is spending this year working with juveniles in need of care, including those who are accused of committing various offenses. There are simply not enough social workers or mental-health services available to them — there are not even enough beds in the detention center for them to sleep on.

Through all of his work post-Katrina, Hammer said the one thing the catastrophic hurricane and its affect on the justice system did was reaffirm for him what he wants to be when he grows up.

"I am more convinced than ever I would like to work for a prosecutor's office, if for no other reason than to show other district attorneys how to do it right because I know — I have seen the elephant, I guess — and we can fix it," he said.