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.