Underfunding of Capital Defense Services in Louisiana Leaves Defendants Without Lawyers

Facing court challenges for underfunding the state's public defender system and pressure from prosecutors angered by the zealous capital representation provided in the state by non-profit capital defense organizations, the Louisiana legislature enacted a law last year redirecting $3 million to local public defenders that had previously been allocated to fund capital defenders. As it has nearly every winter, however, the Louisiana public defender system has run out of money, and the underfunded capital defense offices, already at full capacity, say they cannot take any more cases. As a result, The Marshall Project reports, "[a]t least 11 Louisiana defendants facing the death penalty — including five who have already been indicted — have no defense team and may not have one until new money becomes available in July." And, with Louisiana law requiring prosecutors to seek the death penalty in murder cases unless the prosecutor explicitly decides otherwise, the wait list is expected to grow. Ben Cohen, an attorney with the non-profit The Promise of Justice Initiative likens the situation to “a conveyer belt" of murder cases. He said, "we’re grabbing them off as they come. But with the funding cuts, they essentially pulled some of us away from the line, and now the cases are piling up and crashing to the floor.” “They robbed Peter to pay Paul,” said Jay Dixon, chief defender for the Louisiana Public Defender Board. “We’re still in crisis; it’s just a different crisis ... [and] we could be facing an even greater crisis next year." Hugo Holland, a death-penalty prosecutor who doubles as chief lobbyist for the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, suggests that the capital defenders should lower their standards in providing representation, taking more than the five cases per year recommended by the American Bar Association standard adopted by the state Public Defender Board in 2007. He also argues that the defenders should back off of the ABA-recommended standard of a defense team of two lawyers, a fact investigator, and a penalty-phase mitigation specialist. He rails against the capital defenders as "boutique law firms" whom he believes are "intentionally thwarting the administration of justice." The defense lawyers, he says, should "do [their] f***ing job and provide anyone represented by [them] constitutional representation." Cohen says Louisiana has placed capital-defense lawyers "an awful moral conundrum." It is, he says, "[l]ike a doctor who has to perform 12 heart surgeries in a day, but then his staff gets cut in half. He can either do a crappier job on these life-or-death procedures, or he can take fewer of them and make the others wait." Prior to the new law, the Louisiana Public Defender Board had spent about 28% of its annual budget on capital cases, totaling about $9.5 million two years ago and 8.5 million last year. Louisiana's death penalty has been plagued with problems. Former Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero has characterized prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases as "endemic and persistent." There are equally persistent allegations of racism in its administration of capital punishment. And since 2000, courts have reversed 96% of the Louisiana death sentences that have completed appellate review. Eleven prisoners wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in Louisiana have been exonerated, the most recent exoneration occurring in April 2017. New Orleans capital defense attorney Nick Trenticosta says that if the state wants to have the death penalty, it has to pay for it. "You can’t try to put a man to death on the cheap."

(E. Hager, "Where the Poor Face the Death Penalty Without a Lawyer," The Marshall Project, November 28, 2017; D. Hasselle, "Louisiana Legislature to consider banning the death penalty in this year's session," Gambit, April 6, 2017; D. Hasselle, "Louisiana conservatives rethinking the death penalty," Gambit, April 6, 2017) See Cost and Representation.