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NO Can’t Prosecute Criminals – Due To Katrina

From those champions of justice at the "Paper Of Treason," the New York Times:

Filing cabinets in the evidence room in New Orleans in March. Officials estimate that as much as 10 percent of the evidence was ruined.

In New Orleans, Rust in the Wheels of Justice

November 21, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Seventeen months ago, when Edward Augustine was arrested with what the police said were marijuana and crack cocaine in his pocket and a handgun in his waistband, he seemed like just another run-of-the-mill drug suspect: easy to prosecute, easy to lock up.

Warren E. Spears, the clerk in charge of the evidence rooms, in a part not damaged after Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Spears said a cleanup contractor was hired to gather flood-damaged evidence and clean off the mold.

But two months later, the floodwaters rushed through the labyrinth of evidence rooms in the courthouse basement here, scattering tens of thousands of items and leaving a fetid mess.
When Mr. Augustine finally came to trial in October, the authorities could no longer find the three things they needed most: the small bag of marijuana, the rocks of crack and the gun. The judge threw out the case, and Mr. Augustine walked free.

As the judge, Lynda Van Davis, put it, Mr. Augustine, 18, had lucked out. But he is not the only lucky defendant in New Orleans. As the city’s criminal justice system slowly gears back up after Hurricane Katrina,
as many as 500 defendants, mostly in drug, theft and assault cases, have been freed because of problems with evidence, including difficulty in finding the witnesses who have moved away.

Law-enforcement officials say a few of those who were freed could potentially be violent, a cause for concern in a city battling a surge in drug-related killings. And some judges say that missing witnesses and damaged evidence, like spoiled DNA samples and rusted guns, will almost certainly lead to more acquittals, even in cases of murder, rape and armed robbery.

“It’s amazing that for every case I’ve walked into lately, there’s evidence missing,” said Rick Tessier, a defense lawyer.

Several judges have jettisoned cases like Mr. Augustine’s over the last few weeks. And in acquitting him, Judge Van Davis chastised prosecutors for going ahead without the drugs or the gun.

“This is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” she said from the bench.

But the district attorney, Eddie Jordan, responded in an interview, “We can’t just tuck our tails between our legs and run just because it’s difficult.” …

While 800 suspects have pleaded guilty to various crimes since the New Orleans courts reopened in June, only about 90 trials have been held, about a third the normal number. More than 2,000 people arrested before Hurricane Katrina are still waiting for their cases to be heard, and at least 400 of them remain in jail. And 1,500 cases have been temporarily set aside because the defendants, who were out on bond, apparently evacuated and never returned.

Court officials say other delays have come from a shortage of jurors and from limits on how many inmates can be brought to court each day. And the public defender’s office is so overwhelmed that it is recruiting law students from across the country to conduct interviews with long-neglected clients who cannot afford a lawyer.

But a growing source of delays and acquittals has been the lack of witnesses and evidence.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, the evidence rooms at the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court sat in chest-high water for two and a half weeks. Only recently have court officials begun to realize the extent of the evidence problems within the old Beaux-Arts courthouse, which was closed for nine months and is still not quite back to full operations.

Warren E. Spears, the clerk in charge of the evidence rooms, said in an interview that before the storm only about 10 percent of the hundreds of thousands of items had been sealed in plastic bags. The rest were in paper bags and scrap boxes holding clothes, guns and drugs, some of which disintegrated in the swirling waters, Mr. Spears said, dumping their contents into heaps on the floor.

Clothing from murder and assault cases took “a brutal beating,” Mr. Spears said. Photo lineup cards used to identify suspects stuck together and could not be separated. Stacks of assault weapons turned to rust, he said, and holes had to be punched in duffel bags filled with rotting marijuana to let the water out.

The court hired a cleanup contractor to gather the evidence, clean off the mold and place it in plastic bags and fresh boxes. Court officials have estimated that 8 percent to 10 percent of the evidence was a total loss.

Mr. Spears added that a number of the workers spoke little English, and that he could only gesture to them as they guessed which items should be packaged together.

Water also seeped into safes, he said, rotting a great deal of paper money that had to be freeze-dried to remove the moisture.

At separate police evidence rooms nearby, some DNA samples for rape and murder cases were held for months without refrigeration, possibly ruining their usefulness, other officials said…

New Orleans is a city that is below sea level. It is surrounded by water on three sides. No one ever thought to put the city’s evidence rooms on a higher floor?

Moreover, the flood waters from the broken levee rose quite slowly. The police did not have the manpower to move the evidence elsewhere? Oh, that’s right. They all ran away. And then, went on a vacation in Las Vegas.

What a way to run a city, Mr. Nagin.

This article was posted by Steve on Tuesday, November 21st, 2006. Comments are currently closed.

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