Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Source: Timespicayune.com

Man in jail for months amid mix-up

Charges wrongly put on St. Charles inmate
Friday, April 21, 2006
By Matt Scallan
River Parishes bureau

A Florida man arrested on a crack cocaine possession charge in New Orleans spent six months in jail without bond because of a records mix-up that led jailers to believe he also was facing trial for attempted murder and looting.
Irvin Brown, 45, who was being held in the St. Charles Parish jail along with nearly 30 other Orleans detainees, got a court order for his release Monday but was hauled back to Orleans Parish Prison after the St. Charles prison officials saw the more serious charges listed against him.
Leatrice Dupre, a spokeswoman for the Orleans district attorney's office, said the more serious charges were mistakenly attached to Brown's case file because of a mix-up.
"This happened during the chaos that we faced after Hurricane Katrina," she said. "We had lost our computer system, and everything was being done by hand. Apparently, the wrong magistrate number was attached to his file."
It wasn't until Brown was back in Orleans Prison this week that officials reviewed his case and found the mistake. He was released Thursday after pleading guilty and receiving a three-year suspended sentence on the possession charge.
Dupre said Thursday that it was unclear whether the district attorney's office or the clerk of criminal court's office made the mistake.
"We in the criminal justice system were all working under very chaotic and primitive conditions," she said.
Brown was shipped off to the Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel after his arrest on Oct. 11, then to the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center in St. Charles Parish in January, where he languished before reaching Norco attorney Vic Bradley Jr., who works on the parish's indigent defender board.
Bradley filed a motion for Brown's release in St. Charles Parish's 29th Judicial District Court, based on the legal requirement that defendants come before a judge within 72 hours of their arrest so that bond can be set.
Judge Emile St. Pierre granted the motion Monday, saying he had no choice under the law but to let Brown go.
But Brown's incarceration wasn't over yet.
St. Charles deputies checked with the New Orleans Police Department and saw that Brown faced more serious charges for which bond had been set, and the state Department of Corrections confirmed the information.
St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said St. Pierre verbally reversed himself and ordered Brown to be turned over to the NOPD.
"I think we're lucky that we didn't let this guy out," Champagne said Wednesday.
St. Pierre's reversal apparently wasn't put in writing and never got into the file.
"I thought he had been let out," Bradley said. "If there was a reversal, I should have been contacted."
St. Pierre was out of town this week and could not be reached for comment.
On Thursday, Brown pleaded guilty in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to the possession charge and was given a three-year suspended sentence and ordered to report to participate in the Orleans Parish drug court.
Champagne said Thursday that his jail is housing Orleans Parish prisoners to help the city's criminal justice system get back on its feet and that his officers had no way of knowing that the charges against Brown were bogus.
"We're just housing them," he said. "I agreed to do this after the state attorney general personally asked us for help."
However, he said he has ordered a review of the records of all Orleans inmates being held at the jail.
"We're taking every step we can to ensure that the paperwork for these people are in order, but I don't know that we could have caught something like this," he said.
However, Brown's problem isn't unique, said Pamela Metzger, associate dean at the Tulane University Law Clinic.
Inmates arrested on minor charges are being allowed to languish for months in understaffed rural jails throughout the state, she said.
She and other law clinic workers have traveled across the state to interview inmates to determine whether they are being given due process.
"There are a lot of Irvin Browns out there," Metzger said.

Friday, April 14, 2006

"Baby Steps"

As our trip to New Orleans comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on the people I've encountered and the sights I've seen. Every day of this trip seemed to be another step towards coming to an understanding about the far-reaching devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches. Who would've thought that the airplane ride sitting next to the overly chatty woman that never seemed to stop chatting would've been a moment that, at day 6, I would appreciate immensely. Her story was one of the many survivor stories of New Orleans. Her name was Bonnie and her husband is a bartender at Pat O'Briens, one of the famous bars of Bourbon Street. She had been back and forth from New York to Lousiana numerous times, relocated even more, trying to establish herself somewhere. She was on her way back after months of not seeing her husband hoping to convince him to leave New Orleans and start from scratch somewhere else. Her husband, however, was a native of New Orleans and refused to leave. In fact, although the bar he worked for went from being open 7 days a week to only 2, he still had hope that someday, New Orleans would be back in full force. As their income dwindled and the stress of being apart started taking its toll on their marriage, Bonnie was on her way back to give him an ultimatum.... "How can I live like this?" she asked...I wish I knew the answer; wished I knew what to say....I could barely come to terms with having to pick up and start from scratch somewhere miles away from your home with nothing more than the clothes on your back and a small insurance check.

As we drove through the blocks of the 9th Ward, I couldn't help but ask myself, "Are we still in the United States?" Entire blocks of what once was a thriving neighborhood just deserted. The silence was eerie and at times, simply terrifying. Clothes were strewn amidst the rubbish - people LIVED here once. 9 months later and it looked as though all time had stopped once the hurricane hit. Even in the French Quarter, streets are lined with stores that are boarded up. Who would think that I'd ever drive through a city of America to find a deserted Burger King at 1:00 in the afternoon?

"Baby steps," I remember Judge Derbigny telling us... one tiny step at a time towards rebuilding a city that was destroyed from just about every facet of its existence. From the economy, to the people, to the entire criminal justice system - Hurricane Katrina didn't just blow out windows and knock down trees - it stopped the heart of this great city. Although our work at the Justice Center was one small piece of the rebuilding process, I leave New Orleans knowing that it was one "baby step" in the right direction.

Things I didn't know about New Orleans - Addendum

1) Po Boys can be purchased at most eateries and have become the staple of my diet.
2) You can run for mayor on a campaign just to fix potholes.
3) Some potholes are so big; your entire car can fit into them.
4) Downed street lights are still lying on the street; broken windows have not been repaired, 8 months after the hurricane.
5) Some of the hardest hit areas are still “intact”; not rebuilt and not torn down and unfit for human habitation.
6) The level that “politics” plays in securing government posts and how it hampers the rebuilding effort.

The Hofstra 5 at Work - Justice Center Library

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hofstra 5 & Becky Brignac, Judge Derbigny's Law Clerk

Great Facial Expressions - Part I

Passover – Louisiana Style

I went to a traditional home-style down south Louisiana Passover Seder dinner tonight. Becky (the Law Clerk that introduced us to judge “D”) knew that I would be celebrating by myself so invited me to dinner with her friends and family. I’ve always heard of southern hospitality but never experienced it first hand. They truly treated me as family, even though I was a complete stranger. The family was wonderful, the food was great, and after dinner we discussed politics, the hurricane, and everything in between. I spoke to one family member who was living in a trailer since the hurricane since her house was flooded, spoke to another about the demographic issues that the hurricane raised, and to another family member about what the Hofstra 5 were doing in New Orleans. They were very proud to have us down here and just our presence alone seemed to be really uplifting. It was great to meet locals, eat with them, discuss issues, get their feelings and thoughts, and laugh with them. I’m glad I had a chance to get out of the tourist areas and see what real people here are like. Even though I was warned that the Seder might be more “loosey-goosey” than I was used to in New York, I quickly adapted to the different style. Becky’s warmth and kindness in bringing a random New Yorker into her family’s house is without bounds.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Devastation

Monday, April 10, 2006

Things I didn't know about New Orleans

This is the beginning of my running list of things I neverknew about New Orleans before I arrived in this city.
I never knew that...
1. most levees are mounds of dirt with grass on them. Really, that's it!
2. in a US, urban area it could take more than 2 hours for the police department to respond to a call.
3. Bourbon Street smells alot like vomit.
4. a judge would actually show up for work wearing jeans and a golf shirt - and not wear a robe while on the bench....
5. ...it may be he lost everything during the hurricaine and/or flood and may not even have returned to his own home yet.

Reality Check

Well today began our first day of substantive work. We started the day by reporting to our assignment & were immediately redirected out the door to cover the local state court. What we saw there was definitely an eye opener. Initially we stationed ourselves in the rear of the Ct room so as to take notes & make observations. What seemed conspicuous to me is how quickly the judge managed to blast through his docket. Obviously this is a reactive approach, necessary to the malaise & back-log of prosecution. Anyhow, w/ our a.m. so invested, we thereafter, thanks paid to a very hospital judicial clerk (Becky bruising), got the opportunity to sit w/ the judge (Dergigny) & fire off a little Q&A.
This session proved to be a very intensive education. Apparently, what is left of this judicial dist (the 4th) is a core group, substantially reduced in size, intent on righting this ship. Nevertheless, despite their best efforts I could discern a degree of pragmatism essentially attesting to what seems to be a daunting group of hurdles. Some staggering revelations are the facts that this Ct is simply relegated to 2 Ct rms, 2 days/wk, for 4 hrs a day. Invariably, this is an insufficient amt of time to dent the ever compounding inmate pop. However, so as not to paint too grim a picture, this is an improvement over the former Kangaroo Cts employed. We were told that the 4th Dist was originally relegated to practicing out of the actual prison itself. From there they'd commandeers the local Greyhound depot & aptly dubbed it 'Camp Greyhound.' Therefore, improvements are being made.
Furthermore, access to these inmates has also propel to be another challenge. The local prison, which had once housed appox 7000 inmates is now reduced to a mere 1500. And, as if all of this isn't enough, there has also emerged the issue of tainted evidence. Invariably, the flooding which'd submerged this city also consumed vast caches of evidence. In response, the Cts are adopting the controversial approach of permitting merely lab reports as admissible, in the absence of the actual physical evidence.
As you can likely imagine, all of this spells unconscionable delays. While everyone gropes for justice, it isn't always forthcoming. The basic inalienable right to a speedy trial has essentially become a luxury that this city can ill-afford to extend. In such a system, closure seems an impossibility; patience a necessity. Consider: a man gets incarcerated on a misdemeanors & remains so 'locked-up,' admist the more violent/compulsive offenders, for an indefinite period. While the reverberations have yet to echo, I suspect this will, if left unchecked, likely breed a new generation of criminals.

Our First Assignment & Court

The Justice Center – Attending Criminal Court – Our First Assignment

The Criminal Court is being held in the US Federal District Court House due to lack of available spacing. However, due to the displacing, they can only utilize two rooms in the court house. In addition, because the defendants are spread about in various districts that are housing them, it is a logistical nightmare in getting them all in the same room which further limits the number of defendants that can be heard. All the while, the number of accused is steadily growing, there is a certain amount of defendants (no one is sure of exactly how much) that were supposed to have hearings before Katrina, many for petty offenses but “fell through the cracks.” That is, they may be incarcerated somewhere, should have been let out months ago, but due to the post Katrina confusion, are being kept incarcerated until their hearing. This is where the organization we are volunteering for comes in. The Justice Center is trying to locate these lost defendants who are languishing in jail serving triple, quadruple sentences or in some cases even more.

The Court Hearings

Alex, Barbara and I stood out like a sore thumb in the courtroom while a large group of the accused was sitting shackled in orange jump suits and chains obviously talking about us amongst themselves. For our first assignment as part of the Justice Center, we were to observe the hearings for the day and take notes of all the information regarding the defendants. We took notes of what the defendants were charged with, their sentences, plea bargains, and how much time they have already spent in jail. I was a little shocked at the level of disorganization that was present in the courthouse. While I understand their displacement from their usual courthouse and that the accused have to be shipped in from different locations, it was hard not to be taken aback by what I saw. A lot of times neither side really knew how much time the defendant had spent in jail, what their prior history was, or other pertinent information. There was a lot of “I think he was” or “I think it was filed on.” One particularly amusing moment arose when the prosecutor was asked what the status of the accused was; he replied “I think he is incarcerated.” The accused was sitting across the room in an orange jump suit in shackles. The judge replied, I know he is incarcerated! Maybe that was some keen lawyering insight that I missed. The first judge whose hearings we sat in on was quite blunt to one indigent defender saying: Since he could not find a public defender, there not being enough resources to obtain one for him, he would have to stay in “limbo” until the public defenders office was up and running or have to find a private attorney. The judge’s admittance was truer than it sounds. There is a large shortage of public defenders exacerbating the back-log of pre-Katrina cases that need to be heard. A lot of the funding that was used to pay for the public defenders has dried up – parking tickets, allocation of city funds, etc.

Judge D

After sitting in on the Judge’s hearings, his law clerk (who happened to go to Pace Law for a period) introduced us and some of the Pace Law students to the judge. He was eager to answer any questions we had and to voice his feelings on the current state of the judicial process. He expressed some frustration regarding the fact that the justice system has been slowed significantly but also expressed optimism that over time things would eventually get back to normal (which may or may not be such a good thing). Some of the problems affecting his courtroom: lots of evidence has been destroyed or damaged due to the floods, their normal criminal courthouse has been flooded and is unusable, and they must share the federal district court house and because of that are limited in the number of defendants that can be heard and cases prosecuted. Following the hurricane, defendants had to be moved from holding place to holding place and were scattered all over the area wherever space could be found. It was interesting to note that the local Greyhound station served as a holding center and courthouse immediately following the disaster. In addition, the number of public defenders shrunk to a level where a number of defendants can not get speedy hearings.

Seeing the Devastation for Ourselves

Given directions, we set about going to the 9th Ward, one of the hardest hit areas to see the devastation for ourselves. Upon arrival, we noticed that the only people in the whole area were a few contractors with no residents to be found. The streets were eerily deserted, it looked as though a nuclear bomb was dropped a few thousand feet away and the resulting fallout severely damaged all the structures, left a film of debris and destruction in its wake but did not completely demolish all the houses. It felt like a ghost town, with peoples belongings strewn about the street. A dirty teddy bear was in the front of a house with half its roof missing. There was a visible yellowish/whitish line on all the structures that was from 5-15 feet in height representing the extent of the flood. I felt like I was in a third world country. A few structures look as if they were not touched and others were completely destroyed, with only the underground basement and concrete stairs leading up the house left standing. One caveat: the area of the 9th Ward was not a model of civic living before the hurricane. It was one of the poorest ghettos in the country that was neglected and falling apart for years. The hurricane happened to expose all of this. The great schism that existed and continues to exist in New Orleans between rich and poor is more evident now than ever. Seeing the area in person helped to put everything in perspective and helped us understand the extent of the devastation – we now have some understanding, be it a small one, of what hell the residents had to go through.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

"Let me tell you a story about Al Gore, Geraldo Rivera and a Corporate Jet"

We're here! The "Hofstra 5" are all settled in New Orleans -our home of the next 6 days.

We arrived in the city early--our flight touching ground at 9:30 am. Our hotel rooms weren't yet prepared, so we navigated our minivan towards the Riverwalk area and the French Quarter. Alex had told me about the St. Louis Basilica and I was looking forward to attending Mass at the oldest, continuously active cathedral in the United States, established in 1720. Spending some time in Church permitted me a chance to reflect on the abundant blessings I have been given and to pray that I would be able to lend support and assistance to this city and her citizens.

This evening the hurricane Student Network welcomed us to the City of New Orleans at an Orientation Session at the Bridge Lounge. We met other volunteering law students from Pace University and together we learned about our assignments and heard about the on- going struggles that the people here face every day.

As the orientation session began, a man named Tommy came into the room where we were meeting. After saying hello, he told us he was from New Orleans and heard that we were here to volunteer our time and talents to assist with Katrina related issues. He welcomed us to his city and thanked us for coming--saying that he truly appreciated our presence and our desire to lend support.

After the meeting, Alex and I went over to thank Tommy for his encouragement and his friend Rudy gave us a huge smile and said, "Have I got a story for you! It involves Al Gore, Geraldo Rivera and a corporate jet." Rudy then began to tell us his "evacuating story". While this storyteller propelled us through an amusing and self effacing epic, the truth of his story laid beneath his witty recitation. And yes, his evacuation did include a run in with Geraldo Rivera, a rescue by All Gore and a corporate jet to Texas. However, his story also included the harsh realty of evacuating his elderly parents, 28 hours in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital and the cold truth that he was leaving his home not knowing if or when he would return.

People here have told me to listen to the locals--they say I'll discover more listening to their stories then I ever will listening to the news. So here I am, hoping to lend a hand. And I guess, more importantly, I'll be listening.

Friday, April 07, 2006

An Introduction

I am excited to update you on the pro bono legal work that myself and four other students at Hofstra Law School will be undertaking in New Orleans during spring break this coming week. We have worked extensively in organizing the trip with the help of the Student Hurricane Network in an effort to respond to the needs of the residents of New Orleans.

The Student Hurricane Network (SHN), www.studenthurricanenetwork.org, is a national association dedicated to providing long-term assistance to communities affected by Hurricane Katrina. SHN works with law students and administrators to create and coordinate volunteer opportunities for law students to get involved in relief efforts and the rebuilding process, streamlining the process for both student and those public interest organizations in need of assistance. SHN also seeks to educate members of the legal community about the legal crises in the region in the hopes of obtaining additional support.

SHN’s first major project took place in December 2005 and January 2006, when over 240 law students from over fifty law schools across the country converged on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and across Louisiana. Volunteers worked with over eighteen public interest organizations. Students assisted with projects involving criminal justice, housing, immigrant labor, FEMA claims, and more.

Building on the success of the winter trip, SHN is coordinating the travel of nearly 700 law students over the months of March and April. Our group jumped on board and will be working for the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center www.thejusticecenter.org/lcac/internship.html. All legal offices are currently overwhelmed with work and it is our hope that we can utilize the skills we have acquired over the past year of school to help out in any way we can.

This trip would not have been possible without the funding and support of the Hofstra Student Bar Association http://www.hofstra.edu/academics/law/sba/law_sba.cfm and Nassau County Bar Association’s We Care Fund www.nassaubar.org. We would also like to thank the Student Hurricane Network for helping us organize this trip.

We believe the trip may become a catalyst for pro bono work on behalf of Gulf Coast survivors. The first hand experiences will be a powerful report-back message to the law school community and to the legal community as a whole on the current situation. Please stay tuned to our “blawg” during the week ahead. We will be posting our experiences daily. Thank you for your on-going interest in our Katrina relief efforts. We look forward to reading your comments.