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Innocents have gone to jail, say NOLA public defenders

New Orleans public defenders tell Anderson Cooper that innocent people have gone to jail because they've lacked the resources and time to defend them properly

Past and current attorneys of the New Orleans Public Defenders Office tell Anderson Cooper they believe innocent clients have gone to jail because they lacked the time and resources to defend them properly. The system is so overburdened that in 2016 New Orleans Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton began ordering his staff to refuse to take on clients facing the most serious felonies. Cooper’s report on the New Orleans justice system will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, April 16 at 7 p.m. ET/PT. 

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All nine of the attorneys agreed when asked by Cooper if they believed an innocent client went to jail because they didn’t have enough time to spend on their case.

When 52 attorneys are responsible for 20,000 criminal cases a year, as in New Orleans, they do their best says Bunton.  But often, indigent defendants will not get the quality defense they are entitled to. “You can’t provide the kind of representation that the Constitution, our code of ethics and professional standards would have you provide,” says Bunton.   Asked if it’s not better to have a busy lawyer than no lawyer, Bunton does not hesitate, “No. A lawyer poorly resourced can cause irreparable harm to a client.”

Cooper follows one case of a man arrested in New Orleans who sat in jail for more than a year before an attorney presented evidence to the court showing he did not even match the suspect’s description.  He also speaks to the man’s original public defender who got so fed up with not having the time to provide quality defense, she quit.

At the time, Lindsay Samuel represented nearly a hundred clients facing a life in prison. She felt she was “Always coming up short.  The first thousand clients you feel terrible. The second thousand clients, you feel awful,” she recalls.  “Every day my clients are going away for a decade and I just move along to the next client,” says Samuel.

Bunton shows Cooper a warehouse full of the nearly half million cases handled by his office in the past decade.  He says 90 to 95 percent of the defendants in those cases pled guilty, many because they lacked confidence in an overburdened public defender being able to provide them with an adequate defense.  The justice system in New Orleans has become a criminal processing system says Bunton, “A conveyor belt that starts when you are arrested and then there’s hands that touch you on your way to prison,” he tells Cooper.  “It’s not about figuring out...your innocence...and that’s what we are fighting to change,” says Bunton.