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Court is back in session in New Orleans

Drug case ends in first conviction since Katrina

By Harriet Ryan

New Orleans' courthouse was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.


Court TV
New Orleans (Louisiana)
Justice and Rights

(CourtTV) -- In another time or place, the drug possession conviction of a crack user named Larry Williams would hardly merit mention, but in New Orleans it was a cause for celebration.

Williams' verdict Monday was the first delivered by a jury in the city's courts since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the criminal justice system.

"It felt really good to be honest. It was really exciting," said Kevin Guillory, lead prosecutor in the case, of the moment when he rose before jurors and delivered an opening statement, the first in nine months in the historic Orleans Parish criminal courthouse.

An hour and a half later, including 11 minutes of deliberation, the panel of six citizens pronounced Williams guilty of cocaine possession. New Orleans police had arrested him in September after they spotted him trying to break through the gate of a private residence in an evacuated neighborhood.

The 40-year-old Georgia man was carrying a crack pipe and three rocks of cocaine, witnesses told the jurors.

The trial took place in a courthouse that has been until recently a symbol of the severe damage Katrina did to the city's criminal justice system.

Floodwaters surged into the building, flooding the courtrooms and leaving evidence lockers waterlogged. Until this week, when initial repairs and cleaning were complete, criminal judges shared courtrooms borrowed from federal judges.

The greatest barrier to the resumption of trials was not the city's physical destruction, but its financial straits. The city's public defense program has long been criticized as underfunded and ineffectual, and Katrina exacerbated its weaknesses.

The Orleans Indigent Defense Board, which represents 85 percent of defendants, was forced to lay off all but a half dozen of its lawyers. The board relies on court fees and traffic tickets for much of its budget and with the city under water, it quickly went broke.

As a result, as many as 1,500 people were still being held in jail this spring without trial dates or access. Some were incarcerated for months on minor charges that normally carried punishments of a few days in jail.

By the time the first group of jurors were summoned for service Monday, the public defender's office had received an infusion of cash from the state that allowed it to hire back more than a dozen lawyers to begin representing a backload of thousands of cases.

In addition, the governor has promised $10 million for indigent defense across the state in her next budget and a federal grant is to bring $2.8 million to the New Orleans board over the next two years.

Rick Tessier, a former public defender who sued the state for underfunding indigent defense in 1992, said that, while the resumption in trials was a welcome step, many challenges remained for the court system. The 12 judges each are carrying caseloads of about 1,000.

"I remember a time when some had caseloads of 58," Tessier said. He estimated that it would take the city three to five years to recover from the storm.

"In that way, it's the same as the effect of Katrina on the city's infrastructure," he said.

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