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Another public defender sought

Increase in prosecutions fuels official’s request

Author(s): PENNY BROWN ROBERTS Date: January 26, 2004 Section: News

Faced with a record caseload, the federal public defender’s office for the Western and Middle Districts of Louisiana last year passed on half of its clients to private attorneys.

By comparison, just 25 percent of the cases handled by the federal public defender’s office in the New Orleans-based Eastern District last year were passed off to outside law firms.

In 2003, federal judges from Baton Rouge to Shreveport referred 862 defendants who couldn’t afford their own lawyers to the office – the most in its 10-year history.

That’s prompting Federal Public Defender Rebecca Hudsmith’s plans to ask regional court officials in May to add another full-time assistant defender to handle cases in the Baton Rouge area and elsewhere in Louisiana. Four trial attorneys work in the federal public defender’s office for all of Louisiana, with the exception of 13 parishes in the New Orleans area.

“The number of prosecutions – particularly of poor people – has dramatically increased in Baton Rouge over the course of 10 years,” she said. “We’re at the point that if we take more cases, we’re not going to give the client the kind of representation they deserve.”

The growth stems in part from a record number of criminal prosecutions in the Baton Rouge area. Last year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged 268 people with federal crimes – many of them for drugs and firearms violations.

Larger drug conspiracy cases often have multiple defendants – as in the recent indictment of Zachary music promoter Michael Germany and eight others. To avoid a conflict of interest, the public defender’s office can represent just one client in such cases; the others must be given to different attorneys.

“The U.S. Attorney has hired additional staffers and is generating more criminal prosecutions than it has in the past,” said defense lawyer Mike Walsh, whose firm handled a half-dozen cases last year. “That’s why there are more cases that need to be defended.”

Federal public defender’s offices nationwide are feeling a similar pinch as prosecutions have shifted more toward street crimes.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is projecting an increase of 10,946 indigent cases this year. In 2002, there were 968 public defenders working in the federal system; by 2003, that number had risen by 52 to 1,020.

Hudsmith’s office provides federal court representation in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Shreveport and Monroe. In addition to criminal prosecutions, the public defenders also handle claims of unlawful imprisonment and death-penalty appeals.

Baton Rouge has one full-time assistant public defender, Jean laria. Cases the office can’t take are handed out to a panel of about 25 private attorneys with experience and specialized training in defending federal criminal cases. They are paid $90 an hour to represent those clients.

1 ludsmith’s goal – of adding a fifth attorney – is for the trial attorneys in the public defender’s office to represent 75 percent of federal indigent clients.

Thomas Damico, a Baton Rouge lawyer, signed on to the private attorney panel when it formed about five years ago. Last year, he handled about nine such cases.

He said the federal system “really tries to put the defense and prosecution on equal footing” by paying competitive salaries to public defenders and panel attorneys.

“It’s certainly less than we get in private practice, but it’s competitive and not a losing proposition,” Damico said. “It helps put the defense and the prosecution on equal footing.”

Joseph Scott 111 said his work on panel cases is an opportunity to “do good service for the community” as well as gain expertise in federal criminal defense.

Chief U.S. District Judge Prank Potozola said Baton Rouge’s federal judges accommodate the growing workload of the public defender’s office by staggering the sentencing schedules to avoid conflicts.

Me said he was “extremely pleased with the competency” of the local federal public defenders but sees the need for a boost in staffing.

“I would think the staff is stretched a little bit,” Potozola said. “Frankly, I hope we get another person and that maybe they’ll be stationed in Baton Rouge.”