Fall 2008 Issue

And Justice for All

Last summer a group of Barry law students spent a week in New Orleans grappling with the post-Katrina justice system and learning what it means to be a ‘good’ lawyer.

By Richard A. Webster

In January of 2007 3,000 people marched on the New Orleans City Hall to protest the rising murder rate and the failings of the criminal justice system following Hurricane Katrina.

Elizabeth Hunter is crying.

She’s trying not to, laughing at herself, slightly embarrassed, but still the tears come.

It started with a simple request from Barry University law professor Gerard Glynn.

“Tell us a little about what you’ve experienced the past few days.”

Hunter starts to speak. “Well, I’m three days into this and I’m feeling overwhelmed.” And then she stops. “I’m sorry,” says Hunter, her voice cracking. “It’s emotional for me.”

Fifteen Barry University law students are seated around a dining room table in a Garden District house in New Orleans. It’s past seven in the evening. They pick at plates of Mexican food, tired from another long day of work in the courts, prisons and law offices of the Crescent City.

“Take your time,” Glynn tells Hunter, a second-year law student.

She wipes away the tears and catches her breath. “I’m ok,” she says. “It’s just that these people aren’t treated like human beings. They’re screwed over left and right. And there’s a lot of mental illness. The whole thing is just sad. I can’t believe what I saw today.”

What Hunter saw were the inner workings of the New Orleans’ post-Katrina criminal justice system — filthy jails packed mostly with poor African-Americans. Many of whom are charged with petty, nonviolent offenses. Accusations of police brutality, graft and corruption run rampant while understaffed and overworked public defenders struggle to handle the hundreds of cases that come through their office every week.

It is a never-ending state of chaos, a revolving door criminal justice system that has created a permanent underclass in the inner city.

“It was crazy. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” says third-year student Amy Kenyon. “There’s no method to the madness.”

Barry University Law School requires every student to commit to 40 hours of community service, typically pro-bono work, in order to earn their degrees. Instead of toiling in a “staid-by-comparison” Orange County courtroom in Orlando where the school is located, these students opted to spend five days in May working in the trenches of the New Orleans justice system.

They conducted interviews, filed papers and researched cases for the Orleans Parish Public Defenders and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming the juvenile justice system, among other organizations.

It was only the second out-of-state trip organized by the law school, the first taking place last year, also to New Orleans.

The purpose of the trip and one of the goals of Barry Law School is to not only graduate competent lawyers, but lawyers who are committed to public service, Glynn says.

“People say there are too many lawyers and my response is, ‘No, the problem is that there aren’t enough good lawyers.’ And part of my definition of a good lawyer is one who is committed to serving the people.”

Grinding to a halt

When organizing the first trip, New Orleans was a natural choice, Glynn says. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and destroyed 200,000 homes, but it also crippled the city’s legal and criminal justice system, a system that was considered substandard at best even before the storm, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission. The hurricane flooded Orleans Parish Prison, the courthouse and district attorney’s office destroying thousands of case files. Much of the system has had to be rebuilt from scratch with limited resources and manpower, making the contributions of volunteers like the Barry students so important, said Steve Singer, chief of trials for the Orleans Parish Defenders’ office.

“Without these students who give up their vacations to come here and volunteer their time, this office would grind to a halt,” Singer said. “We simply don’t have the staff to handle all of the work.”

The storm also created unforeseen legal problems — particularly for the tens of thousands of people who can’t afford attorneys.

New Orleans residents are struggling with insurance claims, divorces, custody battles and criminal issues, all complicated by the sluggish post-hurricane recovery. Three years after Katrina made landfall, large swaths of the city remain in ruins.

The evacuation of hundred of thousands of people following Hurricane Katrina created countless legal problems for the evacuees - everything from family and divorce issues to insurance and real estate claims. Pictured here are tens of thousands of New Orleanians sheltered in the Houston Astrodome following Hurricane Katrina.

White-picket fence types

By taking the students to New Orleans, Glynn said he hoped they would realize they could use their law degrees to help the less fortunate. But he never expected the trip to have as profound an impact as it had on them.

It’s been only three days since the students arrived in New Orleans, but during those 72 hours most admit the things they have witnessed have permanently altered their perception of the American justice system, and for some their future career paths in law.

As they went around the table trading war stories from the day’s work, third-year law student Kara Rolf described the impoverished criminal defendants and their circumstances in blunt terms.

“They’re getting screwed,” she says. “People don’t care about them because they’re black and poor and the people affected don’t have the means to make a change.”

Rolf grew up in a small town in Nebraska where, during her 18 years living at home, she said she saw maybe one black person pass through. Nothing in her past prepared her for what she would face in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“My dad is a rural mail carrier; my mom does bookkeeping at a doctor’s office. I have two older brothers — one is an insurance broker and the other is a financial planner. I have a very white picket-fence type family.”

While in New Orleans Rolf worked with the Public Defenders’ office and spent much of her time in Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail where people waiting to stand trial are incarcerated. It holds everyone from accused murderers to people with one too many traffic tickets.

It is an infamous New Orleans landmark.

“The facility is in such poor condition. It’s disgusting,” she said. “And the things the people in there told us — everyone had a story about being beaten up by the police or being arrested for no reason, for just walking down the street.”

But what stuck out the most to Rolf was the racial disparity inside the prison where all but a handful of inmates were African American. The details of their lives, she says, painted a grim and seemingly hopeless portrait of the inner city: Many were addicted to crack, women in their early 20s had as many as five children and few graduated from high school. The jobs they held, if they had a job, didn’t pay enough to sustain a single individual let alone a family.

Many complained of being arrested on trumped-up charges, Rolf says, describing one man who police charged with possession of a deadly weapon after they found a pair of scissors in his backpack.

“It’s like being in a third world country, like we’re not even in the United States anymore,” she says. “But apparently this is just the way things are.”

Rolf was shocked by what she witnessed in New Orleans but the experience didn’t shake the convictions of the girl from the white picket-fence home in small town Nebraska. It had the opposite effect, Rolf says. It steeled her nerve and reinforced her life’s goal. She arrived in New Orleans wanting to make a difference, to help those in need, and she left more determined than ever.

After she completes her last year at Barry Law School she plans on working in public defense with the goal of one day running for political office.

“I just feel strongly about people’s individual rights. And the rights of these people are being trampled on left and right. They need someone to protect them and I’d rather see a guilty person out on the streets than an innocent person in jail.”

Unlike Rolf, second-year law student Emily Criste was unsure if she wanted to go into public service.

After graduating from the University of Tennessee she got a job in the broadcasting industry but soon became disillusioned.

“There was a lot of Hollywood backstabbing,” she says. “It was more about who you know and not your talent.”

After she left broadcasting, Criste took a job as a receptionist at a law firm, thinking it was a temporary move, but she fell in love with the work, became a legal assistant and decided to enroll at Barry Law School.

When the opportunity presented itself to volunteer in New Orleans she jumped at the chance.

“My dad was working in the Pentagon when 9-11 happened. I wanted to do something to help but I was in Tennessee at the time and felt stranded and helpless. And then when Katrina hit New Orleans I was in Florida and felt the same way I did during 9-11. I desperately wanted to help but I couldn’t. So this was my chance.”

When Glynn asked Criste to talk about her experience, she said at times she felt hopeless; that progress in New Orleans seemed to be an impossible goal.

Shedding a little light

Criste worked with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. One day her group took a tour of the Youth Studies Center, the juvenile section of Orleans Parish Prison where the adolescent inmates are held.

She described the facility as a dark place nearly devoid of natural light where the stale smell of mildew choked the narrow hallways and permeated the cracked and filthy walls.

“It was hard to tell if it was dirty because of the flooding [from Katrina] or if it had never been clean,” Criste says. “But it looked like it should be condemned. There’s vermin everywhere, termites in their food. It’s just a miserable existence in there.”

At one point Criste’s group walked past a line of cells during what was supposed to be recreational hour. But there was no recreation. The young inmates stood outside their cells, leaning against the wall. They didn’t move or talk, they just stared ahead at nothing at all, Criste said.

“They all had these blank looks on their faces. It was like they weren’t even there.”

Criste read the file of one boy classified as a suicide case. According to the report he tried to strangle himself with his own shackles and when he was put into solitary he repeatedly smashed his head against the glass. He was admitted to Children’s Hospital but was returned to the Youth Studies Center the next day where he again attempted suicide.

He told everyone he didn’t want to go back, that he would rather die. He begged and pleaded but there would be no relief.

“This is why I didn’t want to go into public service,” Criste says. “I found it to be so emotionally taxing, and that was what I was afraid of. I didn’t think I had the threshold to be able to handle wrenching stories like these every day.”

But after the first three days, something changed, Criste says. She began to see more than just the misery of the inmates; she was able to see the results of all the Juvenile Justice Project’s hard work.

The crowning achievement was the day she went to the state capital in Baton Rouge and saw the legislature pass a bill, spearheaded by the attorneys at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which called for the closing of the Jetson Correctional Facility for Youth in 2009.

Jetson, a Baton Rouge prison for male juvenile offenders, had been plagued by reports of violence for decades that included beatings and rapes, many allegedly perpetrated by the guards. In the 1990s, Human Rights Watch called Jetson one of the worst prisons in the nation.

After the vote came through, Criste says she realized that it was possible to make a difference and rethought her prior reluctance to work in public service.

She is now interning at the Orange County State Attorney’s Juvenile Bureau, and when she graduates in two years she wants to continue working to help troubled children.

“Kids are going to do bad things and mess up, but they’re still people and I want to make sure they’re treated justly,” Criste says. “You can’t just say they’re horrible kids so let’s just warehouse them in a prison. “That just perpetuates the cycle and ensures they’ll be incarcerated forever.”

At arm’s length

Third-year law students Emily Criste and Elizabeth Hunter take a study break on the Orlando campus of Barry's Law School. The two women were part of group that travelled to New Orleans in May to do pro bono legal work for Orleans Parish Public Defenders and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.

For Elizabeth Hunter, however, her experience in New Orleans remains jarring. And given her past, she wasn’t surprised.

After graduating from Rollins College in Orlando, Hunter split time working at an adult live-in treatment center and a shelter for abused children.

She majored in psychology so it seemed like a good fit. But Hunter says she could never find the right balance. She became so emotionally invested in her work that it took over all facets of her life. It was unbearable, she says.

So Hunter took a job as a secretary at a law firm specializing in business litigation and eventually enrolled at Barry Law School. She occasionally volunteers at the shelter but knows she needs to stay at arm’s length to keep it from consuming her.

When the opportunity came to travel to New Orleans, Hunter jumped at the chance because she knew it would only be a week. What harm could it do?

During the week in New Orleans, Hunter worked with the Public Defenders’ office. Before going to court the attorneys told the students that some of the judges wouldn’t see their clients as people; they would see them as statistics, case numbers to blow through as quickly as possible. Hunter and the others would be representing the defendants during bond appearances and it was their job to make the judges see them as people who have families that depend on them. If the judges saw them as real people, they were less likely to set unusually high bonds.

Humanizing the less fortunate has never been a problem for Hunter. Unfortunately, it has also been her “downfall.”

“My interactions with the clients were just sad to me, some of the stories I heard,” Hunter says. “They really opened up and I wanted to listen as much as possible. I saw a lot of mental illness. I saw more young people than I thought I would. I met mothers who couldn’t afford to take care of their children. It was overwhelming.”

The students were taken to Orleans Parish Prison to conduct interviews with the inmates before their hearings. Hunter was nervous at first and while seated she saw one of the inmates coming at her from the corner of her eye. She flinched, expecting the worst. But instead of attacking Hunter, the man killed a tick that was crawling toward her.

“Here is this guy trapped in this awful place and he’s concerned about me,” Hunter says with disbelief. “Just the respect and kindness he showed me was really touching. It makes you realize we’re not so different at all, we just have different circumstances.”

One young woman incarcerated in at the prison stuck in Hunter’s mind. She was five years younger than Hunter and had her first child when she was 12 years old.

“She had such a hard life. She said it was frustrating because she didn’t even know how she was going to be able to afford Pampers.”

The inmates touched Hunter but, just like in her previous job at the shelter, she felt the walls closing in. Her emotions were getting the best of her and it got to the point where she admits she wanted “someone on a white horse to come in and save everybody.”

Decent meal or a donut

But, like Criste, there was a turning point during her New Orleans experience. Hunter found hope in the last place she expected.

There was a guard at Orleans Parish Prison who appeared to take sadistic pleasure in tormenting the inmates. He made a point to smoke cigarettes and eat donuts right in front of them, knowing that not only couldn’t they smoke, but they were forced to eat what one inmate described as “crap.” He knew that they would have done anything for a decent meal and a cigarette. But he tortured them anyway.

“He was such a jerk,” Hunter says. “He was so abusive to them and I wanted to say, ‘If they weren’t shackled and you saw one of them on the street, I bet you wouldn’t be talking to them like that.’ He was on a power trip because he could be.”

One day Hunter asked the guard why he thought crime was so bad in New Orleans. She thought he was going to break out in a tirade about how they “needed to get off their asses and get a job.” Instead, Hunter says, he answered with compassion and understanding. He talked about the failing education system and broken families that resulted in good children turning bad.

“Then why do you treat them like you do?” Hunter asked.

The guard, a small man, told her that during his first week one of the inmates attacked him and smashed his jaw. The prison administrators reprimanded him. They said he was too soft on the inmates, treated them with too much respect and that he needed to show force to prove to them who was in charge.

That, Hunter says, made her realize that the guard was yet another victim of a broken criminal justice system.

“But in a weird way, talking to him made me feel better. I thought he was this really horrible person but he wasn’t. He was understanding and saw all of the same things I did that needed to be fixed. It surprised me and gave me some hope that maybe things can change,” she said.

But that small spark of hope was not enough to convince Hunter she has what it takes to commit full-time to public service. Just look at the attorneys with the Orleans Public Defenders office, Hunter says. They are understaffed, underfunded and overworked. And yet they are passionate, fearless and capable of submerging themselves in the often tragic cases of their clients without allowing it to overwhelm them. And Hunter is honest enough to admit that these are qualities she doesn’t possess.

“They were mad at the system. They see an injustice that they want to fix and I think you need to have that constant passion. You need to be a constant soldier for what is right and fair,” she said. “I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything. It showed me how there are a lot of people who really do need good legal representation and it’s reassuring because it’s good to see efficient public defenders who are there to step in and who have passion and want to help.”

Degrees of good

As the night ended and the conversation at the table in the Garden District house gave way to tired silence, Glynn told his students to relax and prepare for another long day. He knew the emotional toll on them was heavy, that they had experienced things they never expected. But that was the point. If, after all they had seen, they remained indifferent, the trip would have been a tremendous failure. Glynn says he didn’t set out to force his students into a life of public service out of guilt. It didn’t matter that Hunter didn’t leave wanting to become a public defender. What mattered is that she left having witnessed firsthand the inequities of the justice system. And that experience would stay with her for the rest of her life, he noted.

“What made me most proud was the kindness and compassion that everyone showed,” Glynn said. “We exposed them to the devastation of New Orleans and the ongoing legal complications connected to natural and man-made disasters. And that led these students to realize that they can use their degrees to do good. It’s not something you can force on someone. They found it within themselves.”

Richard A. Webster is a staff writer for New Orleans CityBusiness, covering crime and health care.