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New Orleans: Pursuing Justice After the Storm

by Arlene Rivera Finkelstein

Spring 2007, Vol. 70, No. 1

Drowning in a backlog of cases and struggling not just to rebuild but to improve the pre-Katrina criminal justice system, the Orleans Public Defender's Office put out a call for help late last year. Law schools across the country responded, joining what was dubbed the Katrina-Gideon Interview Project.

Professor Judy Ritter, who runs the criminal defense law clinic at the Widener University School of Law's Wilmington campus, immediately recognized the amazing opportunity this call for help presented for her students. She reached out to me both as director of Widener’s Public Interest Resource Center and as a former assistant defender in Philadelphia. Within about three weeks, our tentative discussions of a trip over spring break turned into a solid plan of action for the first week of January. Nine law students were prepared to travel with Ritter and me as their supervisors. All we needed was money.

Because time was of the essence (it was already mid-December), we made the risky decision to plan the trip, max out our personal credit cards, and worry about money later. In the end, the generosity of our school, our alumni and members of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — including a number of kind souls from the Philadelphia Defender Association — managed to fund our efforts.

Along the way, we picked up a welcome addition to our party: Everett Gillison, a senior lawyer in the homicide division of the Defender Association. When Gillison learned of our project from the request for donations that circulated through his office, he decided to put more than just money on the table. He called me and said he’d like to join us, at his own expense, to offer any help he could. This was an offer we could not refuse. Together, the twelve of us embarked on a short but unforgettable journey.

Preparing Our Students

As former defense attorneys, Ritter and I knew we could probably wing the client interviews. But as educators, we could not impose that on our students. We tried to anticipate the skills that would be required of our students, and we scheduled an all-day training session for them just days before Christmas — while some students were still finishing exams. Yet they came. We showed them Prisoners of Katrina, a BBC documentary that explored the impact of Katrina on the Louisiana criminal justice system, and we discussed strategies for interviewing clients in the worst of circumstances.
Our students were excited and nervous. One student, Danielle Graham, candidly admitted to the group, "I’m going to cry." Such emotion resonated with the group … especially me. Being in my third trimester of pregnancy, I could relate to being overcome with emotion. We advised our students to retain their humanity, to be empathetic, but by no means to presume to understand what Katrina survivors have been through. We could feel for them, and we could do whatever was in our limited power to help them, but we can never truly understand the tragedy that had befallen them. The wisdom of that advice would become clearer each day we spent in New Orleans.

The Arrival

Most of us flew out of Philadelphia International Airport on the evening of Monday, January 1, 2007. We gathered with energy and anticipation that only grew during the flight to Louisiana. Within moments of our arrival, those of us who had previously been to New Orleans immediately knew this was not the same city we had seen before.

When we landed, we climbed down some stairs and were directed to a doorway. We entered the airport through a trash-strewn stairwell. The paint was peeling off the walls. Perhaps it had been like that for some time, but the dilapidation was not a welcoming sight. I braced myself for what else we would see. But the next surprise came in what we didn't see.

Having made it through the time-consuming task of getting our bags and obtaining our rental cars, we were eager to make it to our hotel. Armed with computerized directions, we anticipated no trouble — until we started to notice a conspicuous absence of street signs. Navigating through any unfamiliar location is difficult. Navigating in a city that seems to have lost every other street sign is impossible, particularly when many of the street signs that did remain were askew. Thus, our first adventure was a navigational guessing game requiring the combined efforts of my brazen Philadelphia driving, one student's calm reading of the directions, and another student's expert interpretation of the rental car map, literally counting streets to predict when a necessary turn should occur. It was a comical bonding experience made better by a chance midnight drive through McDonald's. The extent of the street sign problem did not become clear to me until I happened upon a telling public service announcement on a local newscast that urged New Orleans residents to call a certain telephone number to report missing street signs. Either many more folks needed to call, or the few signs that were up were the result of these Good Samaritan reports. Regardless, the navigational issues would plague us for the entire trip.

Day One

We reported for duty at Tulane Law School early on January 2. Falling victim to the missing street signs, our roundabout drive to Tulane took us through the well-known Garden District, which quite frankly looked untouched by Katrina.
At Tulane, we encountered student groups from several New York City law schools that joined us for the week. We all received a large training binder filled with materials that none of us had time to read. We then gathered as Pamela Metzger, who is doing at least triple duty as the Tulane law professor in charge of the Criminal Law Clinic, a board member of the Orleans Indigent Defender Board, and a driving force in the Katrina-Gideon Interview Project, welcomed us and brought a room full of idealists down to reality in an instant.

Metzger described in vivid detail the impact of the storm on the prisoners of Orleans Parish. It began with the days preceding the storm in which prison guards actually gathered their families at the Orleans Parish Prison because they perceived it to be safe. The phones were shut off, and then the power was lost. The dark, hot August days that followed in prison cells filled beyond capacity with no power (and therefore no air conditioning), no food and no drinkable water were unimaginable. According to Metzger, there were attempts to color-code inmates using wristbands. But later, as inmates spent days at least knee-deep in the murky flood waters, most wristbands came off (some with a little help), making it impossible for officials to distinguish those who'd been jailed for being drunk on Bourbon Street from the convicted murderers.

Symbolically, it made all prisoners equal in this disaster. Administratively, it created a system in which prisoners — particularly those who were still awaiting formal charges — were literally lost. In Louisiana, individuals can be arrested and held for forty-five days (for misdemeanors) and sixty days (for felonies) without being charged, and without having counsel (except for a very brief appearance when bail is initially set). For those awaiting charges, if they could not afford private counsel, no attorney was responsible for their cases, and no record of their incarceration existed.

Metzger described to the now spellbound group of law student volunteers that those who were able to evacuate before Katrina did so. So the lawyers and professors were in other states, far away from Louisiana’s prisons. It took weeks, or months, for these individuals to determine whether they could and should return to New Orleans. In October 2005, volunteer triage efforts identified many prisoners who were entitled to release because charges never materialized, or because they had already served more time than, for example, urinating in public would ordinarily carry. But shortly thereafter, it became clear that individuals remained wrongly incarcerated. Metzger was called back to New Orleans when the law clinics of Tulane’s and Loyola’s law schools were appointed to represent all criminal defendants on ineffective assistance of counsel claims. It was an overwhelming task, but one that immediately produced results.

Metzger described a post-Katrina legal system that was like nothing lawyers from other jurisdictions could imagine. Ex parte communication was the norm, as judges and lawyers conducted court business on cell phones. Metzger reported that many prisoners were released as a result of cell phone calls once her clinic was able to start determining who was in prison, and whether they had already served more than the maximum possible sentence. For many prisoners, it was just a matter of having someone find out they were there, so that lawyers could request their release. By spring 2006, the crisis of the illegally incarcerated seemed to be getting under control. The focus then turned to those individuals whose cases needed litigation.

Thus the Katrina-Gideon Interview Project was born. As Metzger described it, we were invited to help the Public Defender’s Office as it embarked on a metamorphosis that would enable it to emerge from the post-Katrina rubble as a stronger, better office. Students would help the lawyers by interviewing clients who perhaps had yet to be seen since Katrina. They would conduct extensive interviews and prepare the files for litigation by drafting motions and conducting investigation that any lawyer with the proper amount of time and resources would do. We were not brought to New Orleans to race through interviews with as many clients as possible. Slow and steady was the message. These were individuals who had suffered — clients who deeply needed attention. Quality over quantity was clearly the goal. Even then, Metzger warned, "Nothing here really works just yet." So we were told to be prepared for technical glitches, lots of waiting, and cramped quarters.

"Lower your expectations to zero," Metzger said. The room full of idealistic law students responded with naively skeptical silence. All at once we learned that we would be doing much more and much less than what we planned.

After our training at Tulane, we went to the Public Defender's Office. The drive revealed a New Orleans quite different from what we had seen thus far in either the French Quarter or the Garden District. The area immediately surrounding the Public Defender’s Office seemed to be hit particularly hard. Side streets were a series of empty lots and condemned homes. It was not unusual to see only one or two homes being lived in on a block full of rubble. Many of these homes had thick black lines running across them like belts, marking how high the floodwaters had been. Black spray-painted stars, like the red stars on my son’s homework assignments, decorated these abandoned homes. They were the marks that rescue crews used to demarcate homes that had been searched for survivors.
The first order of business that afternoon was a tour of the courthouse. The walk to court was short but scenic. We had all seen the documentary’s footage of the courthouse flooded high up to the top of its steps. That nevertheless left us unprepared to walk past that courthouse and be shoulder to shoulder with dark watermarks more than five feet high.

As student Brett Bendistis described it in a law school blog, "I am a smidge over six feet tall, and the water mark was up to my shoulder. It seemed unfathomable that the water was not only that high in that spot, but that it was that high all over the city. The plants, the grass, the cars, doorways to the buildings, the sidewalks and every other the permanent fixtures in town were completely submerged in water… [it] really put the hurricane’s devastation into perspective."

We walked across streets cluttered with litter — not just soda cans and candy wrappers but pieces of homes that had been wrecked in the storm. One especially high pile of rubble stood diagonally across the street from the Public Defender’s Office. The next day, I would watch a work crew mobilize to take that rubble away in anticipation of a storm that was predicted to bring flooding to a city that never needed to hear that word in a weather forecast again.

In striking contrast to the geography of the Philadelphia criminal justice system, the Orleans Parish Prisons are situated quite efficiently within a block of the county courthouse. All are within a short walking distance from the new Public Defender’s Office. The District Attorney’s Office was just blocks away, making a self-contained criminal justice quadrant. It made for easy access to jailed clients. Only a severe lack of time prevented most public defenders from taking advantage of this geographic efficiency.

Having formerly been housed in a few cubicles in the federal court, the Public Defender’s modest office space was quite a new luxury. The office was transitioning from one of part-time attorneys to one with a full-time staff. It was in a state of flux with computer glitches as the norm and with most attorneys (those who had already moved in) operating business from cell phones.
Each volunteer law school was directed to an area that was designated home base. Widener’s team of twelve was to work in one office with two desks. Other larger school teams were in equally cramped quarters. Over the next few days, however, resourceful students found their way. Hallways became makeshift offices. Students took turns on laptop computers. Cheers and groans went through the office when spotty wireless Internet access went on and off. It was a frenetic, highly enthusiastic atmosphere.

This first afternoon of substantive work was dedicated to preparing to interview clients the next day. We received our client files and were instructed to have students work in pairs. Eight of our students formed four teams, with Ritter and me each supervising two teams. The ninth student worked with Everett Gillison. Each team picked apart the skimpy case files, poring over the criminal histories to determine precisely what each client faced. We all left energized by the purpose we now had for the next day.

Day Two

As I awoke for our first day in the prisons, I could only wonder: Had it been only one day? My students did not share that sentiment. They were raring to go on this first early morning. And so we did.

The large complex of prisons lay behind the county courthouse. Inside and out, they looked much like those I had previously visited in Philadelphia. And like in any other prison, delays were to be expected as the requested inmates were brought to the interview room. Soon, however, our students were face-to-face with their clients. By and large, no one had ever spoken to these clients in prison. At most, some had experienced brief encounters with attorneys in court. All had stories that were punctuated by a haunting chronological reference: before and after the storm.

Clients ranged in age and in the severity of their charges. Yet, with each client, our students had to work to gain their trust through a thick piece of Plexiglas using a connecting telephone that barely carried their voices. In her blog, student Lisa Vetro reflected on this challenge: "There we were — law students traveling from afar, meeting men and women for the first and only time, trying to convince them that there were, indeed, people in this world who cared about what was happening to them and wanted to hear their stories and assist them with their legal battles. It was no easy task, but I believe with all of my heart that we did make strides — if only for those few hours when the clients were able to share their stories with us."

Interviews lasted at least two hours. They were long, personal conversations, involving copious notes and gentle prodding. Each inmate was questioned at length to establish the timeline of his incarceration and the nature of his case. We heard stories of imprisonment for days without food or water at the height of the storm. We learned of individuals who had been relocated prior to court dates and then incarcerated for failing to appear in court. When there were potential witnesses, names and phone numbers were collected, although families were scattershot now in FEMA hotels or in other states to which they had been relocated. When there was anger, Ritter and I were there as a calming force. When there was sadness — well, there was always sadness — we listened with empathy. For the most part, our Northern ears could distinguish their Southern expressions. But there were notable hiccups when we encountered local slang, especially relating to street names. One team of students struggled madly to find “Maginty Street” on our Hertz rental map, only to learn that our young client was referring to Burgundy Street — no doubt as confusing to a visitor as a Philadelphian discussing his recent vacation "down the shore."

Once the students had asked everything they could possibly ask, we returned to the office where the next phase of work began. The post-interview flurry of activity was extraordinary. Fingers flew over laptop keyboards as students furiously documented their clients' stories. Gillison, Ritter and I shifted into high gear as we attempted to teach these students how to prepare a case for trial and, in some cases, sentencing. Consult with the assigned trial attorney. Call every witness. Try to contact family members. Brainstorm defenses. Prepare all relevant motions to be filed. Identify all prior convictions. Document any physical or mental illness. Obtain police reports. All in less than 72 hours.

Days Three and Four

Each day blended into the next. Students did a second round of interviews even as they completed tasks for their first set of clients. Work continued in the office, in the prisons, and in the hotel. The hours and effort were more than we anticipated. Yet the process of lawyering for those who had no voice for so long was inspiring. It made us giddy when we dined on Bourbon Street in the evenings, and it dragged us out of bed each morning at the crack of dawn.

Our final day in New Orleans was punctuated by stress and determination. We all had our tasks. We all had our deadlines. It was time to finalize our small mark on the New Orleans criminal justice system. Two by two, students completed last-minute investigation and finished editing their file memos.

We then gathered at Tulane to process a week that had simultaneously flown and crawled by. As each student group was asked to describe the challenges, accomplishments and lasting impact of the week’s events, it was clear that one week in New Orleans left a mark on each student’s emerging professional life as pronounced as the city’s high-water line.

"I don’t believe that within our careers, we will ever feel a type of satisfaction, as the sort we felt after leaving New Orleans, knowing that we helped someone, who badly needed our help,” wrote student Julie Serfess in her blog. “That is what I call advocacy."

Back Home

As accomplished and proud as we all felt to be a part of the Katrina-Gideon Interview Project, each and every one of us felt overwhelmed by the work that remains to be done. Repairing a justice system broken by natural disaster is no small task. Improving that system in the process is an admirable but even greater undertaking.

"With all the ups and downs, I feel that we not only made some important strides in getting a crippled indigent defense project back on track, but also that what we extracted was invaluable experience regarding the practicality — and not the legal theories — surrounding the criminal justice system," student David Iannucci wrote in a blog about his experience. "I hope this project continues throughout this year with many other law students volunteering their time and energy, with the goal that maybe the attention our presence and assistance has generated will jump start a massive endeavor of reform."

In March, the Gulf Coast will receive an influx of assistance from Philadelphia-area law students. Sixteen Villanova University School of Law students, who have largely raised their own funds, will have an alternative spring break in New Orleans. From the Temple University Beasley School of Law, twenty-five students will visit New Orleans. Funded by Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, LLP, these students will be accompanied by Temple Law Professor Bill Woodward; Temple’s Director of Public Interest Programs Maureen Olives; and a New York City attorney. In addition, twenty-seven law students from the University of Pennsylvania will travel to New Orleans. Funded by Saul Ewing LLP, this group will be joined by Saul Ewing’s pro bono counsel, Karen L. Forman.
These spring break trips, like most Gulf Coast volunteer projects, were coordinated through the Student Hurricane Network (SHN), a vibrant, nationwide association of law students that has worked since 2005 to provide both remote and on-site post-Katrina relief. In addition to mobilizing law student volunteers, SHN has worked to generate law firm funding and participation. In Philadelphia, law students worked with the Philadelphia Bar Association's Law Firm Pro Bono Committee to include area law firms in their efforts. It is a productive collaboration that will enable increasing numbers of students and pro bono attorneys to lend many needed hands to the Gulf Coast as it continues on its journey to rebuild. And rest assured, each and every volunteer and donor is sorely needed. The mark of Katrina may never wash away, but it remains an ongoing opportunity for students and lawyers across the country to come together, united in pursuing justice after the storm.

Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, a member of The Philadelphia Lawyer Editorial Board, is a professor of legal methods and director of the Public Interest Resource Center at Widener University School of Law.