Post-Katrina Justice System Remains Shattered

ByABC News
February 6, 2009, 8:19 PM

March 1, 2007 — -- The New Orleans justice system was troubled before Hurricane Katrina, but the storm then washed away records and drove defense lawyers out of town never to return. The cumulative effect was disastrous as defendants stayed stuck in jail as the legal system froze.

Iben O'Neal, 32, languished in a New Orleans jail for a year and a half after his arrest in 2005, without seeing a lawyer, judge or the inside of a courtroom.

"I actually felt like I wasn't going to get out," he told ABC News' Steve Osunsami. "I was lost."

O'Neal was arrested May 19, 2005, on a charge related to simple drug possession. He remained in jail three months later when Hurricane Katrina flooded the courts and the rest of the city. He finally walked out of jail in November 2006, after a group of young lawyers discovered his records and convinced a judge to release him.

"There are a lot of people been in there a couple of years, man, and never been to court," O'Neal said.

A study commissioned by the Justice Department highlights the issue, noting there are people who have waited in jail on no charges, and trials cannot take place even for defendants who wish to plead guilty.

The report goes on to say that for the "vast majority," primarily the poor, justice is simply "unavailable."

Pam Metzger runs the Tulane University Law Clinic that represents O'Neal and has helped free nearly 1,000 other defendants who got lost in the system when the hurricane brought New Orleans to halt.

"Think about trying to call the court and write the court to say, 'When do I see a judge' and there's no answer because no phone picks up," Metzger said. "There were no phones."

When asked if that's still the case now, she said yes.

Most of the public defenders who lived in New Orleans before the storm have not returned.

"We're talking about people's liberty here," said corporate attorney Brian Privor.

He lives in Washington, D.C., and is now providing legal services to those in New Orleans.