A New Orleans judge ruled Friday morning that seven defendants charged with crimes, including murder and rape, had to be released because of the city's lack of public defenders.
In a powerfully worded opinion that upbraided state leaders for failing to provide poor defendants legal representation, Judge Arthur Hunter, Jr. ruled that the defendants' lack of counsel violated the Sixth Amendment. The city's public defender office has been facing profound budget cuts and has refused to represent dozens of defendants, including the seven specified in the judge's order, because they don't have enough manpower.
"We are now faced with a fundamental question, not only in New Orleans, but across Louisiana," Judge Hunter wrote. "What kind of criminal justice system do we want? One based on fairness or injustice, equality or prejudice, efficiency or chaos, right or wrong?" He specifically criticized the state legislature for not providing enough funding for public defense.
The judge ordered that the defendants be released, but not that the charges against them be dismissed. He also temporarily stayed his own ruling pending review by appeals courts; District Attorney David Pipes has vowed to appeal.
If upheld, the ruling could set a major precedent for many other defendants in the overburdened New Orleans court. In any case, it's likely to serve as a wakeup call for prosecutors and the public—especially because of the severity of the charges these seven face, including murder, rape, and armed robbery.
All seven defendants have been sitting in the city's jail without a lawyer for more than 80 days. Darrian D. Franklin, who was charged with second degree murder, has been in prison for 561 days and without a lawyer for 138 days, according to the ruling.
After public defenders refused to represent the clients earlier this year, Judge Hunter appointed private attorneys to represent them pro bono. Those attorneys argued that they were being forced to work on complex criminal defense cases for free, and filed motions last week to halt the prosecutions of their clients.
In his ruling, Judge Hunter quoted in full a Washington Post op-ed by a New Orleans public defender, Tina Peng, who explained how a lack of resources affected her job performance. "It means that I miss filing important motions, that I am unable to properly prepare for every trial, that I have serious conversations about plea bargains with my clients in open court because I did not spend enough time conducting confidential visits with them in jail," she wrote.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.