Chief Justice Pascal F. Calogero Jr. said in an interview Saturday that, based on legal motions the court heard last week, he believed at least 41 prisoners evacuated from Orleans Parish Prison were overdue for release. Many are at the maximum-security Elayn Hunt Correctional Center near Baton Rouge. . . .
Defense lawyer Phyllis E. Mann of Alexandria, La., . . . who has coordinated efforts of the defense bar to compile a full list of 8,500 evacuated prisoners' new locations, said she knew of no evacuated inmate who had seen his or her own lawyer of record.
Mann filed an action Friday afternoon seeking the release of 48 evacuated inmates held on misdemeanor charges.
About 700 evacuated inmates have been released, some because of earlier suits and others as a result of actions by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. But thousands remain in custody without the immediate prospect of a formal hearing or a trial. . . .
Johnson said criminal trials probably would not resume in New Orleans until January or February, partly because potential jurors and judges themselves had fled the city. The homes of nine of Orleans Parish's 13 criminal court judges have been destroyed, including his own, Johnson said.
Defense lawyer Teissier argues in his brief that evacuated prisoners have no prospect of "testing evidence, conducting pretrial hearings on discovery issues" or filing motions. Consequently, many "are expected to be left with a ghastly choice — plead guilty in exchange for time served or remain in jail in perpetuity pending the re-creation of a judicial system."
The reality is that it may be impossible to guarantee a speedy or fair trial to many defendants who were jailed in New Orleans or facing charges at the time Hurricane Katrina hit. Our Constitution makes the resolution of such a dilema clear. Those jailed must be released, even if some guilty people go free. There may be a few cases that can be salvaged, but the Olreans Parish DA needs to promptly give up on the largely misdemeanor cases, where time served already exceeds the likely sentences the defendants' face and everyone who has already served their entire sentence. If even one in ten felony cases can be salvaged, given the dispersal of witnesses to the four winds when the city was evacuated, and the destruction of much of the prosecution's physical evidence when the city was flooded, it will be lucky. Admitting this now, rather than months from now, at trial, is the right thing to do.