Sunday, October 25, 2009

Justears! Louisiana's Backwater

Jeffress | Ciolino | 7th JDC PDO | Original complaint | 14th JDC PDO suit re-opened | October 15, 2009
Gov. Jindal to visit Homer October 16

Governor Bobby Jindal will be in Homer, from 2 until 4 p.m. Friday, October 16 at a Louisiana Honor Medal Ceremony. All elected officials are encouraged to attend.

For more information, please call Brandi White at 927-3077 (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), 263-7419 (Tuesday and Thursday) or cell phone at 422-2951.

DA to reach decision in Homer shooting soon


District Attorney Jonathan Stewart will possibly be releasing a decision on the officer-involved shooting death of Bernard Monroe Sr. soon.

That’s according to Stewart himself, who said he is still reviewing the Louisiana State Police report turned over to his office several weeks ago – but he insists there is no set deadline for his decision.

“I don’t have any deadline. We’re doing some investigating on our own as a follow up to the state police report,” Stewart said.

He said the state police report is very thorough, but there is just some follow up to do. He shares the concerns of many in the community and Monroe’s family, saying that he understands the gravity of the situation.

“All I want is the truth to come out,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for – the truth. The community has a lot at stake, and it has hurt enough.”

Stewart will have to decide whether to send the report to a grand jury to review the evidence and decide if the shooting was justified. Or, he could turn it over to the Louisiana Attorney General’s office to handle the case. The third option would be for Stewart to actually make a decision on whether it was justified or not.

Monroe was shot and killed by two Homer Police Officers on Friday, February 20, after he allegedly engaged the two with a loaded handgun.

According to police, Monroe was armed. His family and those close to him say he was not.

In the wake of his death, much controversy has surrounded the small town of Homer. The U.S. Justice Department has been working closely with community members in an effort to buff the town’s division over the incident. The Federal Bureau of Investigations has also conducted its own investigation into any alleged civil rights violations. The American Civil Liberties Union has also conducted its own investigation into racial profiling, to which it concluded that there were more arrests of blacks in the Town of Homer than whites.

In response, Homer Police Chief Russell Mills and his department are putting their numbers together as well to show more accuracy, he said. The Guardian-Journal, also, has requested the same public documents requested by the ACLU in order to conduct its own inquiry.

Since Monroe’s death, former officers Joseph Henry and Timon Cox have both resigned.

System broken; no fix in sight (10/18)
Posted October 18, 2009 at 12:30 am
Filed Under News


Defense attorneys, judges and prosecutors say the public defender system in state district court here is broken, but no one knows quite how to fix it.

The ideal solution would be to have the Legislature allocate more money to the state indigent defender system that oversees and helps fund the local Public Defenders Office.

In light of budget cuts looming over the state in all areas, the hope of attracting more funds for an agency perceived by the public to represent “criminals” is merely a pipe dream.

Mitch Bergeron, executive director of the local PDO, says he needs about 20 more attorneys to keep up with the demands coming from local courts and for those lawyers to be effective in representing clients.

The agency employs 11 attorneys. Three other lawyers have contracts to handle specific types of cases for the agency. The PDO also pays five so-called conflict attorneys randomly appointed when the agency, because of conflicts of interest, cannot ethically represent a defendant.

There used to be six conflict attorneys, Bergeron said, but one resigned recently. Contracts with some of the other conflict lawyers will not be renewed in the near future.

About 95 percent of the cases that come through local courts are assigned to the PDO because the defendants are too poor to hire their own lawyers, Bergeron said. Each of his felony attorneys now has about 500 cases assigned at any one time. Misdemeanor attorneys have about 700 cases each.

The guidelines of the National Advisory Commission for Defense Attorneys recommend no one public defender have more than 150 felony cases assigned per year and no more than 400 misdemeanor cases per attorney per year.

Because of his staff’s present caseload, Bergeron said there are ethical and constitutional issues coming into play.

A criminal defendant has the constitutional right to representation by an attorney.

“But,” Bergeron said, “that right goes beyond just having a warm body with a law degree standing with the defendant.”

Those accused of crimes are entitled by both the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions to effective assistance of counsel.

Higher courts have said “reasonable assistance of counsel means that a lawyer not only possesses adequate skill and knowledge, but also has time and resources to apply his skill and knowledge to (the) task of defending his individual clients.”

Bergeron said with the present caseload, his staff isn’t able to meet those requirements.

His office may not be in a position to receive any more cases. If that happens, the courts may have to implement another plan to use in naming lawyers to represent indigent defendants.

Jean Faria of the Louisiana Public Defender Board said Act 307 adopted during the 2007 regular session of the Legislature, created on paper a uniform statewide system that gives poor defendants their constitutionally mandated right to effective counsel and provided for additional funds to indigent defense.
Two years later, it is obvious that that legislation is not enough to solve the problems with the indigent defense system.

Faria called the problems “systemic.” She compared the criminal justice system to a three-legged stool with one leg being the courts, a second being the prosecution and the third the defense.

Presently the stool definitely cannot sit straight because the defense “leg” is shorter than the others.

Faria noted her office requested $46 million from the state to help local jurisdictions with indigent defense. She was given $27.8 million, which funds about 40 percent of the local PDOs. The remainder of their funds comes from fines and court costs, but those are not what they should be, either.

Meanwhile, the other legs of the stool remain on an even floor because of public funding and other means.

She pointed out that district attorney offices do not have such worries as rent or health insurance payments, because these are provided by state and/or local government agencies.

Bergeron’s office, on the other hand, pays about $150,000 in rent annually and the same amount for health insurance benefits for its employees.

Savings in those areas could provide at least two attorneys to the local public defender ranks, she said.

“This (the PDO) is as much for the community as that (the D.A.’s office) is,” Faria said. “And there is not even a thought, apparently, of the responsibility of the parish to say ‘Well, we’re providing free rent here. We need to provide free rent for these fellows.’ “

Faria said with the ethics issues now involved, the local PDO “is not in a position to continue to receive cases.”

That is a decision Bergeron must make, Faria said. The state board, she said, will assist the defenders in what they have to do to function ethically because “it’s a profession, and we’re talking about people’s lives, liberty and freedom.”

“If you convict the wrong person, the perpetrator is out there still,” Faria said.

“What could be worse than an innocent person going to prison because the lawyer does not have the time and the resources to do what needs to be done?”

Many of the judges here have been ordering defendants appointed to the PDO to pay a certain amount for legal services.

Some do pay, but, as Bergeron pointed out, “It is hard to ask those people for money when you’re trying to build up a relationship of trust with them so you can better represent them in court.

“And, we don’t have a whole lot of time to start off anyway, so you don’t want that whole relationship to be about money,” he said.

“Then people who should be coming in to talk to you (about their case) are avoiding you — and they were appointed to us anyway because they are indigent.”

Faria said the judges who are ordering such payments are well-intentioned to try to help with the financial situation of the office, but “if the collection agency for that is also the same agency that is rendering the service, it’s tough.”

Bergeron said there are systemic issues in the court system here that add to the problem.

For one, Division H has been moved to Family and Juvenile Court. So now six, rather than seven, divisions of the court are handling criminal matters.

Those six judge also have civil dockets, he said, so there are only a limited number of court dates when a particular judge is in criminal court.

“We just don’t have enough court days to satisfy this caseload.”

So what is the answer? How do you fix the broke and the broken PDO?

Bergeron has considered filing motions to declare his agency ineffective and violative of the rights of the clients it represents. Those types of motions are time-consuming and tedious and would only be a last-ditch effort.

First, Faria said, people have to come together.

She would like parties involved in the criminal justice system to sit down with the local legislative delegation and say “This is what it looks like here … this is the mess we are in and it’s going to take all of us good, well-intentioned people to sit together and figure out how we’re going to deal with this in Calcasieu.”

“Can you help us craft a solution?”

“The answer,” she said, “may be yes. The answer may be no. But the answer cannot be that the public defender clients suffer.”

“Business as usual in this extraordinary caseload just can’t go on.”

Man who claims brutality found not guilty in case against him
Civil rights activist to review alleged police misconduct, school system charges
Posted October 20th, 2009
A corrections officer has been found not guilty of charges stemming from an April incident in which he claimed he was unjustly pepper-sprayed and was the victim of multiple stun gun applications.
Meanwhile, a citizens’ meeting featuring civil rights personality the Rev. DeVes Toon of the National Action Network is scheduled in Eunice Thursday to air allegations of police misconduct.
Judge Lynette Feucht found Jernell Smith, Jr., 52, not guilty of interfering with the duties of a police officer and resisting an officer in a bench trial in City Court.
Smith, represented at trial by Opelousas attorney Jarvis Clairborne, was arrested April 23 after a late-night run-in with officers near Lloyd Street.
The officers - two city police officers and a sheriff’s deputy - were investigating a stabbing that had happened a few minutes earlier at another location
The next day, Smith alleged he was the subject of excessive force, used on him, he claimed, after he had identified himself as a corrections officer and told police he was trying to get to his house.
In addition to being the victim of pepper spraying and Taser use, he alleged he was subjected to verbal abuse during and after his arrest.
Toon, according to his organization, is supposed to appear at a 3 p.m. Thursday session at St. Luke Baptist Church to look into allegations such as Smith’s and those of Josh Andrus, who claimed he was also the object of excessive force during an arrest earlier in April.
The officer accused in that instance has since resigned and the case file of a State Police investigation into the incident is in the District Attorney’s Office.
Complaints against the police began to build about a year ago, when African Americans began claiming Officer A.J. Frank, who is black, was harassing them and unjustly issuing citations.
Internal investigation determined there was no foundation for the complaints.
One concern expressed by the citizens group - overcrowding in the city jail - is indisputable. It often has 50 or more inmates in a facility built for 43.
Toon’s office also said alleged “unfairness” in the parish school desegregation plan and in school employment practices will be aired.
The desegregation plan was ordered by federal district court, after input from the Department of Justice, the School Board and a special Bi-Racial Committee.
School system employment practices are monitored by the same federal court.

Civil rights leader visits Eunice
By Judy Bastien • • October 25, 2009
The Rev. DeVes Toon of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network met Thursday with Eunice community leaders at St. Luke Baptist Church in Eunice.Toon was in the city to hear residents' complaints of alleged misconduct on the part of the Eunice Police Department, as well as objections to some of the provisions of the recently implemented desegregation plan as it affects Eunice schools submitted by community activist Clifton Lemelle.
Toon plans to carry the complaints to the office of the attorney general in Washington, D.C., said George Fisher, one of the event's organizers.
About 25 citizens braved Thursday's severe weather to attend the meeting, which had been scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.
They waited quietly in the church pews until Toon arrived at about 3:45 p.m. and was whisked into a closed-door meeting with organizers.
When the meeting began, sometime after 4 p.m., citizens were invited to come forward and present their own complaints.
At the end of the meeting, the topics of local enforcement and the desegregation plan were discussed.
Representatives of the Eunice Police Department were unavailable for comment.
When contacted, Superintendent of St. Landry Parish Schools Michael Nassif said he stands by previous statements made earlir on the subject of desegregation.
Nassif had previously pointed out that the desegregation plan, which had languished for more than 40 years, had finally been hammered out by a biracial committee and approved by the Department of Justice and federal Judge Tucker Melancon.
Fisher said that his group hopes to have the desegregation matter reopened by the Justice Department.

2008 Winter Advocate LACDL Faria Apellate Project

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