New Orleans Judge Holds Up on Inmate Releases

An Orleans Parish judge who had said he would start releasing indigent inmates stuck in prison for months without court dates or appointed counsel has instead asked for precise lists of pending cases.

Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter said Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, that he needs every detail on the public defender's office and its caseload. He also ordered the district attorney, the clerk of court and the sheriff to help create lists of pending cases.

The two-page ruling says nothing on Hunter's July statement that he would begin releasing indigent prisoners stuck in jail without court dates, attorneys and in many cases, formal charges. The releases were to have begun Tuesday.

The ruling warns of the dangers of a clogged court system.

"The entire criminal justice infrastructure in New Orleans is being held together with spit and tape, and it is just a matter of time before the system collapses," Hunter said, in the ruling released Tuesday.

"Now, one year after Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Public Defenders reports it is practically no better off today than it was in February 2006, and far worse than it was before Hurricane Katrina."

Hunter ordered the office to turn in a report by Sept. 22 that outlines how many cases it has and how many it can handle, along with the number of death penalty cases pending.

At a hearing last week, Ronald Sullivan, a Yale Law professor hired to piece back together an improved public defender's office, said the office can no longer accept new capital cases. It has nearly 40 cases that could end in death sentences, not all of which it can provide adequate representation for, Sullivan said.

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