As New Orleans’s criminal justice system slowly gears back up after Hurricane Katrina, as many as 500 defendants, mostly in drug, theft, and assault cases, have been freed because of problems with evidence, including difficulty in finding the witnesses who have moved away, reports the New York Times. Officials say a few of those who were freed could potentially be violent, a cause for concern in a city battling a surge in drug-related killings. Judges say that missing witnesses and damaged evidence, like spoiled DNA samples and rusted guns, will almost certainly lead to more acquittals, even in cases of murder, rape, and armed robbery.
“It's amazing that for every case I've walked into lately, there's evidence missing,” said Rick Tessier, a defense lawyer. District Attorney Eddie Jordan told the Times, “We can't just tuck our tails between our legs and run just because it's difficult.” Jordan said his office had taken the lead in dismissing 400 to 500 cases, mainly because crucial witnesses, like the victims or the arresting officers, had moved away. He said his office had won about 60 percent of the roughly 90 trials since the courts reopened. Some judges convicted suspects on cocaine and burglary charges even though the physical evidence had been lost.