Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Five months in prison: Free of charge
By law, the state of Louisiana has no more than 60 days to charge someone arrested for a crime, but Hurricane Katrina has left hundreds of inmates behind bars with no access to a lawyer.

We interviewed one man, Ace Martin, who was arrested for an alleged fistfight a few days before the storm. He was evacuated from the Orleans Parish Prison the night Katrina hit, and bounced around to different prisons around the state. Five months later, he was still in jail.

It wasn't until he read about an attorney, Neal Walker, and contacted him that he finally got released. Walker has helped more than a thousand other inmates get released. He says they were being held longer than state law allows because the district attorney, the public defenders and the courts can't keep up with the number of cases.

I've been looking into the apparent collapse of the New Orleans justice system for months now. The situation doesn't seem to be getting any better. The district court is still pretty much unusable. The office of District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. was flooded. Now, he and his reduced staff are working out of a former nightclub. And there are just six public defenders left in town to defend the poorest of the city's prisoners.

Jordan Jr., the district attorney, told us that because of Katrina, he thinks it is acceptable for prisoners to be held longer than is allowed under state law. We also talked to Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, who says help is on the way in the form of new funding from Washington, D.C.

But not everyone is pleased with how the situation is progressing. One attorney, Rick Tessier, put it this way: "I think eventually people are going to look at this situation and say, 'Saddam Hussein had six lawyers in Iraq and 4,000 people in Lousiana have no lawyers and that's not fair.'"

After five months behind bars for that alleged fistfight, Ace Martin was never charged. That's five months of his life he won't ever get back.
Posted By Randi Kaye, CNN Correspondent: 4:31 PM ET
  41 Comments
I bet Mr. Jordan wouldn't think it acceptable to illegally hold prisoners if he were behind bars himself.
Posted By Anonymous Clarke Sanders, De Pere, WI : 5:02 PM ET
I'm not sure how any lawyer can say it's ok to hold prisoners longer than the state law allows - Katrina or no Katrina. (Jordan Jr. must have missed class that day) If New Orleans courts are in this shape it may be time for the federal courts/gov. to step in? I'm not sure what the answer is (all court systems are working on overload), but all people have the right to justic. Rick Tessier hit the nail on the head. If we can give Saddam six lawyers there must be a way we can loan a few to Lousiana.
Posted By Anonymous Cheryl Raleigh, NC : 5:22 PM ET
This story is outrageous. Sadly, most people just won't care.
Posted By Anonymous Lisa, White Plains, NY : 5:30 PM ET
To start i don't believe Ace wants to trade places with Saddam and New Orleans would of been a just place for Hussein to be strapped to a lite pole the morning of the levee break. This Katrina tragedy will be fixed and there's no need to split hairs now over fist fight's.
Posted By Anonymous Dave Winfield Quincy, IL : 5:31 PM ET
These are very extreme circumstances and the doctrine of a speedy trial has gone right out the window. Have they ever thought of getting 2 & 3 year law students to help with the case prep? Law students are very grateful to have the opportunity to put what they have learned to work.

As for the document prep and research they might try getting Legal Assistant to volunteer to help. Having worked as a legal assistant I have helped many attorneys with the actual prep of the case file, once that is done the attorney takes over and the case can be taken to court.

Now if the government would just get the NOLA courts some money maybe Lady Justice could get to work.
Posted By Anonymous Marcia Warren MI : 5:31 PM ET
As a major city and state, New Orleans and LA are a joke. My family is from rural LA (we left decades ago) and we've always heard stories about men getting locked up for months without any representation at all. And you media types act like its some new thing. yeah, right. Furthermore, after Katrina, people from all over the state we're in an uproar about the lack of preparedness for the storm and the response after the storm.

All I have to say to them is this...
You live in one of the poorest, most racist, underdeveloped, and uneducated states in the nation. Did you REALLY expect someone to come save you? Honestly.

Like my daddy always used to say... "Take care of yourself because you'll never be able to count on our governments... especially if you're a black man".

Harold
34 y.o. DC lawyer
Posted By Anonymous Harold, Washington DC : 5:32 PM ET
Okay that is ridiculous, I think the smaller charges like public intoxication etc should be tossed out. Are we forgetting our consitutional righ tto a speedy trial. Our nation's greatness WAS based on our freedoms but under the BUsh administration we have lost more freedom every year while we fight in other countries to give them democracy.

Why can't the other parishes help out with the case load? I used to live in New ORleans and I would hate to be stuck in jail for months over a petty offense. It is an injustice to these people. None of which will recieve and restitution for the extended stays.

The case you mentioned is insane. Typically a first offender with that charge would get community service and/or a fine not 5 months in jail!!!
Posted By Anonymous Ed Orlando, FL : 5:33 PM ET
This is a disgusting abuse of human rights and flies blatantly in the face of the U.S. constitution. The governor should be held responsible for the gross injustice perpetrated on citizens of New Orleans who have been illegally detained.

This is a perfect example of the amount ofconsideration the government gives personal rights: none.
Posted By Anonymous Dave, East Lyme, Connecticut : 5:36 PM ET
Let's not spin this story by saying prisoners will be going 'free.' LA can not violate these people's rights. If state law says they have 60 days to charge them with a crime and these people are still in jail they need to be set free. The state should consider changing this law for future offenders. Remember Lady Justice is blind and we are innocent until proven guilty (at least in the eyes of the Court). Not the other way round.
Posted By Anonymous Rachel-Albuquerque, NM : 5:44 PM ET
I believe that Mr. Martin's civil rights were violated. The DA should not use a natural disaster to hold a defendant longer than allowed. Kudos to Neal Walker for seeking justice.
Posted By Anonymous Michelle - Boron, CA : 5:48 PM ET
I guess its ok for the DA to break the law to enforce the law... what's wrong with that picture? He is just as bad as the people he is holding illegally..
Posted By Anonymous Tom, Denver, Colorado : 5:55 PM ET
I believe Santa Clara Bar Association in California volunteered to help New Orleans residents with legal experts to expedite their cases and provide them with any other legal services, without court representation of course, unless licensed in Louisiana. What happened to that offer from the California Lawyers?
Posted By Anonymous mary lou hipolito, san jose, california : 6:05 PM ET
How silly is this? Surely there must be some sort of way to keep these people in jail. Katrina ravaged the area and now criminals are going to go free because of an outdated law? The circumstances have to be taken into consideration, I am sure lawmakers can put a quick fix on this. If they do or not is another matter.
Posted By Anonymous Jim, Afganistan : 6:10 PM ET
From what other CNN bloggers have written post-Katrina over the past months re: New Orleanians' criminal culture and the high crime of rate of New Orleans, I'm not too concerned about these folks being in jail a long time. It's probably the best place for them to be right now. Look at how the poor Houstonians have suffered from the influx of the "criminally-cultured" Katrina refugees. A bad city, with a bad culture, and a LOT of bad people... Don't tell the ACLU!! Or the NAACP!! Jeez, they'll start screaming and whining for sure! Maybe throw away the key(s)?!?
Posted By Anonymous Jesse, Yuba City, CA : 6:27 PM ET
This is a crime in itself!!!

I can never figure out why justice is not handed out and the american people dont demand the arrest of our public officials when they say it is okay to hold people without representation or for reason.

Why is it money? they have a staff, give me one judge , one attorney that wants to work and get the job done.

Are these really bad people?

or petty crimes and misdemeanors.

Our country worries about the little things and ignores the bigger picture.

Crime pays for jobs at county and city levels. Easy picking crimes where lawyers and public officials all make money.

Common sense lefts the courts years ago.
For Example:

Alcohol is legal, but really isnt??

.08 , so does that mean you go into a bar have one drink and wait an hour to leave?? Why isnt the Bar required to protect society?

How can a judge and attorneys have a beer at lunch and return in the afternoon to debate and judge cases?

You can not have it both ways!!

Its time for reform and the media to get americans upset on these issues as much as you did on the Port Deal.

Oh i forgot, what Port Deal, the deal that still is happening anyway, different names , same americans and lobbyists involved. You should go back to this story too.
Posted By Anonymous Mike, Zephyrhills, FL : 6:32 PM ET
If your're trying to make us outraged by reporting stories like this you're too late. We gave up on caring about this long ago.
Posted By Anonymous Lawrence T. Nashville, TN : 6:57 PM ET
The United States Constitution is kept is a bulletproof, airtight case so that it can't be washed away by things like floods.

Someone should remind the prosecutors in New Orleans that when they were admitted to the bar, they took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

Someone should also remind the President of his oath to do the same.
Posted By Anonymous JSW, West Hartford, Connecticut : 7:08 PM ET
The saddest part is that all of you just post comments about how awful what is happening in the courts in NOLA is and then don't back up your comments by doing anything. I am a law student who just returned from volunteering my spring break to assist in New Orleans and I can assure you that every single person who goes over there to help will make a world of a difference because people helping out over there are few and far in between. If you are a student, contact the Student Hurricane Network, and if you are not, Common Ground is a group that is doing very good work over there. Go help instead of writing comments!
Posted By Anonymous David Neinstein, Los Angeles, CA : 7:21 PM ET
I think Mr. Jordan should wind up in jail himself for his violations of the law. But, like most attorneys and politicians, they believe themselves to be above it!
Posted By Anonymous Ali Roanoke VA : 7:36 PM ET
I could say so much about red tape and failed government promises. Instead I'd like to give kudos to the 6 public defenders that stayed in New Orleans and are continuing each day in an extremely difficult and thankless job.

Keep up the good work and God bless!
Posted By Anonymous Lori Missoula, MT : 7:44 PM ET
When individuals like myself a former 2005 Loyola grad student; born and raise in New Orleans ....hear a story like this ...it make you, never want to return home. When will we wake up people...the U.S. is watching us. Our Louisiana people are everywhere in it. There watching the way we mistreat our people and they will not say anything about it ..because it does effect their children. The more negative news we hear back home the harder it is for us to restart our lives anywhere in America. Also the harder it will be for us to make that choice to return home.
Posted By Anonymous Joe Brock, New Orleans, LA : 8:26 PM ET
I think they need to pay him for them taking 5 months of his life that he cant ever get back.They dont care because its not them in jail.Our court system is so bad.
Posted By Anonymous Robin,Camden,S.C. : 8:33 PM ET
Since I have been working on the complete injustice of the New Orleans justice system, I have come to one conclusion: if a proper justice system is not in the future plan for city then we should not rebuild. Justice for all is a motto of this country. The people who are being held do not have a voice due to a wrecked system. The people in jail remind me of the people left in the convention center and the superdome: forgotten by all. We cannot afford to lose our rights for any reason. Thank you for giving a voice to the people that care forgot.
Posted By Anonymous richard c. teissier, new orleans, la : 8:44 PM ET
This sounds like a third world country. This isn't Haiti, this is America. Our judicial system is something that we have always been proud of, we should be ashamed. Sorry Ace, someone has to apologize and I wouldn't wait for the government to do that anytime soon.
Posted By Anonymous Tara, Chapel Hill, NC : 8:54 PM ET
I can not believe people are actually blogging for this ridiculous abuse of human rights! SHAME ON YOU!!

These people are certainly innocent until proven guilty and do have a constitutionally protected right to a speedy trial.

Imagine you being picked up for a crime they suspect you did but didn't do. Then being held for 5 months knowing you didn't do it. Then you finally get your day in court and the charges are dropped! Oops, I guess they had the wrong guy. Do you think you will get your job back? Do you think there will be someone paying the bills for your family while your away? This could ruin someone�s life! This is a sick situation that is just a continuation of the government's neglect of Louisianans.
Posted By Anonymous Kaitee, Juneau Alaska : 9:15 PM ET
Some people are being held for criminal offenses in which they are innocent. My 17 year old son has been held for over a year without even having a bond set. You are innocent until proven guilty. My Thanks to Neal Walker for doing everything in his power to help my son because if not for him, my son still wouldn't have any representation (1 year later) How horrible is that?
Posted By Anonymous Paula C. Marrero, Louisiana : 9:28 PM ET
It all really depends on what the prisoners are acutally being held for.
If they are being held for "victumless" crimes it should be acceptable for those prisoners to be released, as long as they are on the proper probabtion period for their "rehabilitation", this way they can actually be re-integrated into the public society.
Posted By Anonymous Mr. Body, Elmira, NY : 9:38 PM ET
Can't they move to change locations for trial? They may just have to let some of the lessor crimes go. I understand that the buildings are destroyed, but if they are trying to get the city back, people have to feel safe. They will have to offer some incentives for attorneys to relocate back to NOLA. Sounds like more red tape.
Posted By Anonymous Kathy Chicago, Il : 9:55 PM ET
Obviosuly these people arguing for those pending trial have never been the victim of a crime OR worked with a criminal population. People in jail for "minor" fistfits get a bond...yet this guy did not which means he probably has a history of violence and a prior criminal record. If any of these people that are incarecrated awaiting trial are to be released, they will flee like the rest of those that were able to get out before Katrina. NO ONE is lining up at the Courthouse asking "when am I going to get my trial for the crime I committed." We are talking about criminals and they do not normally share the whole truth. Wake up and smell the coffee, these people have made others victims they are not victims themseleves.
Posted By Anonymous Toni: Virginia Beach, VA : 10:30 PM ET
Having just returned from N.O. after volunteering with the project "Right to Counsel" organized by the Orleans Indigent Defense Program (along with other groups)I can definitely say that Ace Martin's experience is just one of hundreds of inmates whose constitutional rights are being violated. I don't think it's the goal of public defenders or other civil libertarians to free criminals so that they may roam the streets and create havoc. However, our constitution does create fundamental rights which cannot be abridged, even following the worst natural disaster in America. Guilty or not, all individuals held by the government are constitutionally entitled to effective assistance of counsel.
Posted By Anonymous Holly Lard-Clanton, Cleveland, OH : 10:43 PM ET
Does anyone else find it rather shocking that Louisiana cops can hold someone in prison for TWO MONTHS without charging them? In other words - and this happens a lot from my research - police can arrest and jail someone for no reason (or because they just don't like them, or because they are black in the wrong part of town, for example) and hold them for 59 days with no explanation, no charge, nothing ... and then release them with nothing so much as an apology? This was used heavily during the days of Jim Crow, but it still goes on. In how many other states is this the case?
Posted By Anonymous B. Biggs, San Francisco, CA : 11:08 PM ET
Harold, who posted above, is correct. New Orleans is a wonderful city, but the city government is little more than a bad joke, and the same is largely true of the state government. Anyone who thinks that tourists in jail on public drunkenness charges deserved to spend six months rotting in violent state prisons should spend some time in OPP (Orleans Parish Prison) and those other prisons, and/or have a "close encounter of the baton kind" with the local boys in blue, who are well known for being incompetent, brutal, and corrupt. No-one deserves that, and I'm glad those people are finally being set free after the hell they've been through.
Posted By Anonymous Ben, New Orleans, LA : 11:50 PM ET
If they cannot be brought to trial in a timely lawful period, RELEASE them. The U.S. sadly is becoming/has become the worst human rights abuser on the planet and is getting worse. I have been a lifelong republican until now, and I don't look forward to the sad alternatives. Unfortunately the erosion of rights and liberties in order to protect us from anticipated crimes rather than committed crimes has become an abomination. Locking citizens up until some prosecutor/criminal gets around to handling business is unacceptable. Here in Dallas, they don't even know who they have in jail.
Posted By Anonymous Mike, Dallas, TX : 12:14 AM ET
I am not surprised really, New Orleans is famous for inefficiency, corrupt government and beauracracy. New Orleans government is a festering sore on the face of Louisiana government.
Posted By Anonymous Jeffrey Fallang, Colorado Springs, Colorado : 12:35 AM ET
It is ironic that you should highlight this situation - inmates stranded behind bars with no legal access - when your government is doing precisely the same with the 'detainees' at Guantanamo Bay... perhaps you should concentrate your efforts on that story instead?
Posted By Anonymous James, Los Angeles, CA : 3:35 AM ET
My brother was picked up in New Orleans 30 days after the storm and was put in jall for 4 mounths without being charged. He stay in New Orleans to protect our mothers house on Esplanade Ave. At that time the mayor told the police to remove people from the city anyway necessary. Fake charges were piled up against anyone on the street. Indiscriminately these individuals were hauled away to prison and jailed with hardened criminals south of Baton Rouge in the St. Gabriel Correctional Center. Once our family member was there it was virtually impossible to get a straight from any government official. Every time we would communicate ,assuming we could get throught, we were told a different story by the prison and the district attorney's office. It is a disgusting violation of hundreds of individual civil rights that is still going on today. Said plainly some people simply refused to leave which was their right in a free country. There is no end to the horror stories you will hear in New Orleans of the abuse of power that occurred and is still occurring six months after Katrina. The storm hert us enough. For politicians and law enforcement to worsen that suffering is unconscionable. When Will someone be held accountable.
Posted By Anonymous Elaine, Houston, TX. : 5:34 AM ET
Hmm, holding people in jail for longer than is legally allowed...where have I heard that bef-...oh yeah, Guantanamo!

What's happening in Louisiana is a domestic example of US foreign policy...
Posted By Anonymous Nikky, London, UK : 8:11 AM ET
I cannot believe this! Are you telling me minor offenders are just sitting in moldy jails, with no adequate due process? I spent about 5 hours in jail once in college for a roommate fight (we threw things at one another) - I can't imagine having to have served 5 months. Something needs to be done, and NOW! Lawyers from all over need to be compensated by the government to leave their current posts and come to the Gulf. If you make the offer enticing enough, they will come. Step up Bush Administration!
Posted By Anonymous Sarah Shaw, Shelby NC : 8:30 AM ET
Itis time to quit taking the Beeding Heart Liberal approach to things like this. If the man had not got in a fight there would have been no arrest,therefore he would have not spent five months in jail.When are we going to go back to the time when you were responsible for your actions.
Posted By Anonymous Gary Sullivan Cullen,Louisiana : 12:09 PM ET
I really don't expect you to post my comments since they are not of a liberal bent.
But here goes.
Y'all forget one important thing.The man BROKE the LAW. He should be happy that he manamed to get off with out a criminal record because the people in charge were just too bust to deal with him.
Posted By Anonymous Gary Sullivan Cullen,Louisiana : 12:14 PM ET
So Mr. Foti says help is on the way? Hmm tell that to the people that have been waiting for the federal funding just to live and have medical resources! Get real Mr. Foti!
Posted By Anonymous Kellie Gibson, Laurel ,MT : 4:15 PM ET
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