New Orleans Judge Arthur Hunter has held high-profile hearings into post-Katrina legal snafus and delays involving indigent defendants. In the last two months, says the Los Angeles Times, he has suspended the prosecution of cases against 142 defendants and ordered the release of 20 who were still jailed. His actions have propelled the city’s cash-strapped and overburdened public defender program into the national spotlight. Its performance has become controversial in a city battling record levels of violent crime.
Supporters view Hunter as a near-fanatic for fairness. Critics call his actions outrageous, and charge that he is a publicity-seeker more interested in protecting the rights of criminals than those of victims and their families. Hunter is determined to press ahead. In recent weeks, he has notified more than 300 private lawyers of potential appointment to represent indigent defendants. He has continued to call for increased state funding to reform the indigent-defense system. This week, the Louisiana state legislature may create a statewide public defenders’ board and increase funding for the state’s indigent-defense program from $17 million to $27 million. Says criminologist Peter Scharf: “With all the concerns about crime in the city, the easiest thing is to form an anti-crime lynch mob, and he’s fought against it. It’s a hard role in a city besieged by crime.”