Criminal Justice

New Orleans Public Defender Investigator Was Criminally Charged by Prosecutor She Was Up Against In Court

"Every time you go in there, you wonder if you aren't going to be jailed," one defense attorney told Reason.


On the original Law & Order, Jack McCoy, the assistant district attorney who eventually became the district attorney, would sometimes abuse his power by persecuting his legal opponents in order to extract a better negotiating position. It may make for good television (reruns are all over the TV dial) but life isn't supposed to imitate art.

A public defender investigator in New Orleans, Taryn Blume, found herself in that kind of position, The Guardian reports. She was charged with "impersonating a police officer" and thrown in jail on an unusually high $50,000 bond after an officer with the housing authority misidentified her to a housing authority attorney as a representative of the district attorney and not the public defender's office. The attorney then called the Orleans parish DA's office, looking for Blume in order to find out when the housing authority officers would have to show up for court.

Instead of correcting the mistake, the prosecutor involved in the case Blume was working on charged her, tying her up in a legal battle for two years. Neither did the prosecutor inform the judge setting bail that Blume was with the office of the public defender (OPD).

The Guardian reports that it found at least six other employees of the OPD, including attorneys and investigators, who were threatened with criminal charges by the DA's office.

"Louisiana has vested serious unchecked power in the district attorney's office, this is a power that can be used at any time on anyone," New Orleans criminal defense attorney C.J. Mordock, of the Mordock Law Group, told Reason. "No one should be surprised that power without accountability would be used on whoever gets in their way, including defense lawyers and their investigators."

"Part of the problem is that after Katrina OPD brought a lot of this on themselves," Mordock continued. "They were way too cause oriented and are more interested in breaking the system than representing the client. They have sort of refocused a bit."

"But tensions are always high in that courthouse," Mordock added. "Every time you go in there, you wonder if you aren't going to be jailed."

Danny Engelberg, the OPD's chief of trials, explained the post-Katrina shift differently to The Guardian, saying that after Katrina the office became independent and full-time.

"They believe in this basic concept that your lawyer and your defense shouldn't be dictated by the amount of money you have," Engelberg told The Guardian. "Just because our clients don't have money, we're not going to back down from doing that."

Arrests of defense attorneys became so common, The Guardian reported, "that the OPD office had a wall decorated with their own mugshots."

"Investigators are scared," Blume told The Guardian. "Because it could have happened to any of us. And it still could."

The National Association for Public Defense warned the Orleans Parish DA that prosecuting Blume would undermine the criminal justice system, but the charges against Blume were not dropped until the first day of trial—after the DA's office went through 11 different prosecutors.

"The legitimacy of our criminal justice system depends upon defense lawyers and defense investigators doing their jobs, and doing them well, without fear of reprisal from a prosecutor acting more like a bully than the champion of truth and justice he is supposed to be," the letter said, according to The Guardian.

It's worth thinking about how much prosecutors' view of themselves as "champions of truth and justice" lead to abuses of power in the first place. Prosecutors and defense attorneys are supposed to be on equal footing in the adversarial system under which U.S. law operates, even in Louisiana.

Prosecutors are no more champions of truth and justice than defense attorneys or even judges and juries. All components are supposed to work independently to ensure due process and constitutional rights. That's justice, not securing convictions of people you happen to be convincede are guilty in jail by any means necessary.