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Truth, justice, and the American way?

Tahira Bland [University of Pittsburgh School of Law 2L, in New Orleans]: "Anne Bryson, Gina Mosley, and I have been assigned to a non-profit law firm, the Justice Center. The primary focus of the Justice Center is to provide indigent criminal defense.

Hurricane Katrina caused severe damage to legal institutions in New Orleans. For example, the state courthouse suffered extensive damage from flooding. Critical evidence that was stored in the courthouse was destroyed (e.g., cocaine dissolving, devastation of paper documents, deterioration of photos). The parish clerk had a duty to use her best efforts in preserving the integrity of the evidence. As a result, the first day was quite eventful due to fact that we witnessed the sentencing of Kimberly Butler, Orleans Parish Clerk. Ms. Clark was charged with failure to comply with a court order. This charged stemmed from failing to protect the integrity of evidence and failure to relinquish certain responsibilities. In addition, Ms. Clark avoided receiving the summons to appear in court. The sentence was 72 hours of prison and a $500 fine.

During the evacuation, inmates were evacuated to prisons throughout the state. The mass evacuation caused chaos for the court docket, resulting in the inability to produce inmates for scheduled court dates.

Part of our duty at the Justice Center is to observe court proceedings to determine constitutional violations. It should be noted that all but six public defenders were laid off. These six attorneys are now responsible for thousands of cases.

The proceedings observed overwhelmingly dealt with misdemeanors which under normal circumstances, a defendant would be released on their own recognizance or required to pay a small bond. Instead, many defendants have languished in jail since the hurricane without formal charges or proper legal representation. For instance, there was a 14-year girl who has been in jail since August with no legal representation. In another example, the bond of an 18 year-old was set at $1,000 after he was charged with possession of half of a joint and failing to register his bicycle.

In conclusion, the chain of events occurring in the post-Katrina legal system has led to enhanced inequality between those who can afford private attorneys and those who depend on public defenders."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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