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Locked Up Without a Key in New Orleans | The Nation

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Locked Up Without a Key in New Orleans

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The case of Clarence Jones, the New Orleans man accused of burglary, is complicated but instructive. At his May 17 arraignment—almost a month after he’d been arrested—the judge agreed with Clarence’s assertion that he was indigent and qualified for a public defender. (Clarence works as a day laborer in construction, mostly with hazardous materials—including, in the aftermath of Katrina, such things as mold remediation and lead paint and asbestos removal. At the time of his arrest, he was out of work and qualified for food stamps.) Because his co-defendant in the case had already secured a lawyer from the public defender’s office, Clarence was appointed someone from the conflicts division, LaShanda Webb.

About the Author

Karen Houppert
Karen Houppert is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist. Her book on indigent defense will be published by the New...

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Then, on June 27, 2011, Clarence was sent from the jail to the courthouse for a preliminary hearing. But his attorney, likely busy in another courtroom, never showed up. The hearing was rescheduled for July 11. Clarence’s lawyer and a police officer showed up for that one, and probable cause was found for the burglary charge. The judge found no probable cause for Clarence’s cousin, Keitha Hyde, and reduced her charge to trespassing. A trial was scheduled for July 25.

On July 25, the state asked for a postponement. The court granted the request and set a new trial date, September 22. On September 22, the court docket says simply: “Defendant, Clarence Jones Jr did not appear for trial. Defendant in custody and not brought into court.” This would become something of a refrain in the records; Clarence has lost track of the number of times the jail neglected to bring him to court or, having transported him to the building, left him sitting in the “docks,” a holding pen for inmates waiting to be brought by sheriff’s deputies into their respective courtrooms. One public defender insider observed mildly that such snafus were “not completely uncommon.” In Clarence’s case, this happened at least eight times in sixteen months—and since a trial cannot go forward without the defendant in the courtroom, the delays piled up.

Meanwhile, Clarence’s attorney also failed to show up on September 22. The judge postponed the trial, and a hearing was set for September 29—at which point the judge set a new trial date of December 7. On December 7, she set a new date for a pretrial conference on December 12. On that day, Clarence had a newly appointed attorney, Leigh Ann Rood, show up in court on his behalf: unbeknownst to him, his original lawyer, Webb, had left her job at the public defender’s office. Clarence says Rood never met with him. Clarence’s trial was rescheduled for March 1—but by then, Rood had become a casualty of the mass layoffs at the public defender’s office. She lost her job, and Clarence became one of the 543 indigent defendants in the city of New Orleans who were suddenly without a lawyer, people charged with everything from marijuana possession to murder.

A year passed, slowly.

Clarence spent it in the Orleans Parish Prison tents. “I never been appointed another lawyer,” he told me in June. “They call me to court, I sit back in the docks, and they never let me in.” He tried to educate himself on the law: reading some books from the prison library, talking to other inmates and doing some seat-of-the-pants legal work on his own behalf. “I’m not the only one back here don’t have a lawyer,” he says. “We get law books, so I read a few pages to see what fits my case.” He tells me that he filed a motion for “discovery and inspection” to see what kind of evidence might be introduced during the trial, as well as a motion to “squash” (meaning quash) based on a violation of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, which says he has the right to a speedy trial. And while Clarence may be a bit off on the lingo, he’s correct on the essence: “The trial of a defendant charged with a felony shall commence within one hundred twenty days if he is continued in custody….” Clarence is doing the best he can, but after spending so many months in jail, he is growing discouraged and starting to wonder if he’ll ever get out. “I think it sucks,” he says. “I think if I had an attorney, I would have been home.”

Not that Clarence Jones is an angel. Indeed, he’s been arrested five times in his life and convicted twice: once in March 2004 for a misdemeanor (possession of marijuana) and a second time in May 2004 for a felony (distribution of marijuana). It’s not inconceivable that he did attempt a burglary and is lying about what he was doing in that alley. The point is, who knows? (I personally had to consult three local attorneys to “translate” the docket master and comprehend the loopy history of his case.)

Almost fifty years ago, an indigent man who shared the same first name—Clarence—and the same charge (he was accused of burglarizing a pool hall in Panama City, Florida) helped establish the right to counsel in the precedent-setting Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright. Like Clarence Jones, Clarence Earl Gideon didn’t have a lawyer and wrote to the court himself. “Petitioner can not make any pretense at being able to answer the learned Attorney General of the State of Florida because the petitioner is not a attorney or versed in law nor does not have the law books to copy down the decisions of this Court. But the petitioner knows there is many of them,” Gideon wrote to the US Supreme Court in April 1962 from his jail cell. He continued: “It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong too if any. The question is I did not get a fair trial. The question is very simple. I requested the court to appoint me attorney and the court refused. All countrys try to give there Citizens a fair trial and see to it that they have counsel.”

In March 1963, the US Supreme Court agreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black stated the obvious: “Reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” Echoing Clarence Earl Gideon, Black further insisted: “The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.”

Is it?

* * *

Postscript: As this article went to press, Willie Cheneau was finally appointed a lawyer, who promptly got his charge reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor; Willie pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and was released within two days—after spending two months in jail. Clarence Jones finally was appointed a pro bono attorney who specializes in tort, product liability, construction and insurance law. The attorney, Kirk Gasperecz, said that he was already “up to his armpits in alligators” at work, but nonetheless agreed to take Clarence’s case when a local judge told him Clarence had been sitting in jail for over a year. Gasperecz says he will work closely with colleagues who have criminal experience to get Clarence out of prison.

Also, the Orleans Parish public defender’s conflicts division was revived in August, but is struggling along with only three attorneys. As of press time, the number of defendants on the wait list for pro bono representation was down to seventeen.

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