Criminal Justice

Scandal in Louisiana's Criminal Courts

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There's a major scandal brewing in Louisiana's criminal justice system. 

Since 1994, Chief Judge Edward Dufresne has been handling the appeals of indigent Louisiana convicts who had to file their own briefs.  Last year, the aid Dufresne had assigned to handle those appeals committed suicide.  According to his suicide note, Jarrold Peterson killed himself in part because of the guilt he faced over what he had been asked to do as part of his job. 

Peterson sent a posthumous letter to Louisiana's Judiciary Commission with a damning allegation.  He said Dufresne had instructed him to deny every appeal not prepared by an attorney.  Peterson said he was instructed to write up and file the denials without every showing the appeals to the judges.  Peteson handled about 2,400 such cases in the 13 years he was in charge of them.

The Louisiana Supreme Court will now decide if the investigation of the allegations and the review of those cases will be handled by another circuit, and outside panel, or the same 5th Circuit court where all of this may have happened.

A few facts about Louisiana's criminal justice system that might be helpful in putting the seriousness of this scandal into perspective: 

• About 90 percent of criminal defendants in Louisiana are indigent. 

• Louisiana only provides post-conviction legal aid in death penalty cases.  Everyone else must either hire a lawyer, find a lawyer to handle their case pro bono, or handle the appeal themselves.  Obviously, most have no choice but to opt for the latter. 

One criminal defense lawyer in Louisiana told me that if you're convicted of murder in Louisiana and you're innocent, you're actually better off getting the death penalty.  At least then you'll get a team of lawyers, investigators, and experts to help with your appeal.

• Because convicts aren't considered citizens in Louisiana, they have no standing to make requests for public records—and that would include copies of their own case files.  Some prosecutors' offices will grant such requests anyway, but they're under no obligation to do so.  When such requests are granted, or are made by the family or friends of the defendant, defense attorneys tell me that DA's offices charge $1-2 per page, for files that can easily run thousands of pages.

• So what?  Most of these people are probably guilty anyway, right?  Maybe not.  Earlier this month, the Louisiana Innocence Project released a study of 36 death penalty convictions won by the office of former New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick (yes, he's the father of the famous crooner).  The report found that prosecutors had withheld important exculpatory evidence in nine cases, or 25 percent. In four cases—one in nine death sentences—the condemned defendant was later declared innocent.

Given that these were death penalty cases, the defendants had good representation from the state's capital post-conviction office. 

Not only are 90 percent of defendants in non-capital cases left to find such abuses in their own cases by themselves, DAs are under no obligation to give them copies of their own case files, can charge exhorbitant fees when they do, and for 13 years, it looks as if at least one of Louisiana's appeals courts couldn't even bother to read the appeals, anyway.

One more thing to consider:  Many Louisiana DAs have been sending regular work to former Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne and his disgraced "forensic odontologist" sidekick Dr. Michael West since the early 1990s.