Famed defense lawyer Barry Scheck, whose Project Innocence has worked to free dozens of prisoners here and elsewhere, will ask federal courts to reform Louisiana’s system of providing the poor with legal counsel.
Scheck, who gained international fame as O.J. Simpson’s DNA defense lawyer, has accepted Shreveport Sen. Lydia Jackson’s invitation to address the gubernatorial indigent defenders’ task force, perhaps as early as Thursday.
He is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which is preparing a lawsuit to force Louisiana to adequately fund and reform its system of public defenders.
“Louisiana is in desperate need of indigent defense reform, and it is our expectation that continued exposure of the system’s main failures will motivate governmental officials to implement needed reforms to protect all of Louisiana’s citizens,” Scheck states in a media release.
Scheck wants to come to Louisiana “to talk about the litigation that is likely to be filed very soon in the state,” said Catherine Bean, a Lake Charles native who handles the NACDL’s indigent defense work.
The task force, which is in a fact-finding mode, will meet Thursday afternoon in Baton Rouge.
“Barry Scheck is a nationally known figure. He’s expressed great concern and interest in the Louisiana system,” Jackson said. “I think the task force has to be cognizant of some of the issues raised by potential litigation. If we have the litigants willing to share those concerns with the policy-making body, I don’t think we can pass up that opportunity.”
The organization Scheck heads believes the Legislature has ignored the structural and financial problems of the indigent defense system, Bean said.
“Louisianans can’t be assured the right people are going to jail,” she said.
Scheck’s efforts have resulted in proving the innocence of some 200 persons nationwide, including these Louisiana inmates:
Calvin Willis of Shreveport, freed in 2003 after 22 years in the Angola state prison when DNA testing exonerated him in the rape of a 10-year-old girl.
Albert Ronnie Burrell and Michael Ray Graham, who spent 13 years on Angola’s death row for the 1987 Union Parish murders of Delton and Callie Frost near Downsville after a finding that prosecutors withheld exculpatory information.
Clyde Charles of Houma, freed in 199 after DNA proved he did not commit the rape he was convicted of 18 years earlier.
“Basically, the amount of money in your pocket determines the kind of justice you receive in court,” Bean said. “Poor people don’t receive adequate representation.”
In just about every parish, poor people sit in jail, the overburdened public defenders unable to make bail. “These poor people sit in jail for months without contact with their lawyer,” Bean said.
Although the American Bar Association recommends no attorney handle more than 150 felony cases, there are stories about Louisiana public defenders having as many as 700 to 800, Carroll said. “No one can tell you exactly, because there is no accountability in the system,” he said.
Besides experts from systems in Oregon, Massachusetts and Minnesota, Carroll is bringing two Southerners to Baton Rouge to meet with the task force.