New Orleans Magistrate Anthony Russo, a 31-year veteran of the bench, is one of a handful of judges presiding over the only form of criminal justice in New Orleans, reports the Los Angeles Times. Court is held in the basement of the local jail with a ratty, peeling ceiling and yardstick notches on the wall because the room was once used for police lineups. Every case, from traffic tickets to homicides, is argued here. The building has no heat; one prosecutor wore woolly gloves while she argued her case. Nothing, perhaps, embodies the civic collapse of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina so much as the city’s criminal justice system.
Defense attorneys call New Orleans “Guantanamo on the Bayou,” because some clients have been held for months without access to the court system. The attorneys have begun winning the release of their clients, as judges have agreed with some regularity that people accused of crimes cannot be held indefinitely without a hearing, even in an emergency. ndeed, even while Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan pledges to resurrect his agency and finish prosecuting 3,000 cases, law enforcement and criminal justice authorities acknowledge that the release of some defendants in recent weeks could be just the beginning. New Orleans no longer has a single functioning courthouse; the main Criminal District Court compound remains shuttered and dark. Court records, the city’s two primary evidence vaults, coroner’s reports, and the city crime lab were all flooded. Even if those problems could be resolved the state is unable to grant defendants a trial by jury, which they are guaranteed by law. “We don’t have a jury pool,” Russo said. New Orleans’ population has hit a plateau in recent weeks at about 20% of what it was before the storm.