With more than a thousand jailed New Orleans defendants having no access to attorneys nine months after Hurricane Katrina, Judge Arthur Hunter, 46, a former police officer, is moving to let some defendants out of jail, the New York Times reports. Alone among a dozen criminal court judges, he has granted a petition to free a suspect facing serious charges without counsel. “Something needs to be done, it’s that simple,” he said. “I’m the lightning rod, yes.” The district attorney opposes letting defendants back out on the street, saying the court should find them lawyers. Hunter has had little luck finding private firms willing to take on most indigents’ cases, and there appears to be no money to pay their expenses.
The public defenders’ office relies mainly on local court fees –mostly surcharges on traffic tickets – to finance its public defenders, a system two judges have found unconstitutional. The public defenders’ office in New Orleans is slated to receive a $2.8 million federal grant on May 31 – but it needs more than $10 million to get up and running and operate for a year. Officials hope to resume jury trials soon for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, but do not know if they will have enough courtrooms, jurors, or witnesses to proceed. (USA Today reported that trials could resume as soon as next week.)