In a potentially blockbuster ruling, an Orleans Parish judge on Friday ordered seven indigent inmates released from jail because of a lack of state money for attorneys to represent them amid a squeeze on public defense funding in New Orleans and across Louisiana.
However, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter stayed his order, which also included a suspension of the men’s prosecutions, pending an appeal from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office. Assistant District Attorney David Pipes told Hunter an appeal is coming, and Hunter gave him 10 days.
The seven men will remain behind bars pending the outcome of that appeal.
All of them face serious felony charges — including murder, armed robbery and aggravated rape — and all have been deemed indigent. Most have spent more than a year behind bars, going months without legal help on their cases, attorneys said.
Hunter ruled that the lack of state funding for the seven men’s defense violated their Sixth Amendment rights and that the resulting uncertainty on when their cases might move forward warrants their release.
“The defendants’ constitutional rights are not contingent on budget demands, waiting lists and the failure of the Legislature to adequately fund indigent defense,” Hunter wrote in his 11-page ruling, portions of which he read from the bench.
“We are now faced with a fundamental question, not only in New Orleans but across Louisiana: What kind of criminal justice system do we want? One based on fairness or injustice, equality or prejudice, efficiency or chaos, right or wrong?”
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