New Orleans Post-Hurricane Katrina: An Experience and an Education

Third year of law school is typically reserved for long weekends, fretting over the bar exam, finding a job, and rounding out a legal education that, for the first two years, is primarily confined to the classroom.  Like many of my peers, I longed for a practical supplement to my legal education. Specifically, I wanted to get involved and make an impact in a legal forum where I would experience something new, different, and unexpected.  The Katrina-Gideon Project, an immersion program guided by the Sacramento Public Defender’s Office and Pacific-McGeorge School of Law, would present this and much more to fifty law students who traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana in December 2006 to offer assistance to the New Orleans Public Defender’s Office in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Up until the fall of 2005, New Orleans was primarily known for the Bourbon street experience, a haven for conventions, and a place to indulge in southern delicacies, namely beignets, po’ boys, muffaletta sandwiches, and, of course, Pat O’Brien’s world famous hurricanes.  While New Orleans still conjures up images of joyful French Quarter revelers, Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous effects presented the world with a new image of New Orleans—lack of preparedness and a legal, political, and social infrastructure in disarray.  Like other governmental entities, the New Orleans Public Defender’s office was struggling—case demand was growing due to rising crime and arrest rates, attorneys were moving to other states, and defendants were facing extended waiting times, sometimes without knowing what charges faced them.  As a result, the Public Defender’s office needed assistance with interviewing defendants, working up case files, identifying preliminary legal challenges and drafting pre-trial motions.  The Katrina-Gideon Project would help to alleviate some of these problems, while at the same time offering students like me an opportunity to engage their legal knowledge, help a suffering city, and face several moral and legal issues at a very young point in their legal careers.

The Arrival – Expect the Unexpected
I arrived in New Orleans without having any practical criminal experience.  Sure, I had taken criminal law and criminal procedure, but the Katrina-Gideon Project was my first foray into interviewing, counseling, and applying the criminal foundations I had learned during law school.  Upon landing in New Orleans, my mind raced, thinking about casebook lore… Who was I going to defend?  Did the evidence still exist against my client?  Did the officers give proper Miranda rights?  Was my client innocent?  Man… I was preparing to be (gasp!) a lawyer.  Further, I had no idea what to expect.  There were rumors of lack of preparedness and conflicts between the New Orleans Sheriff and New Orleans Public Defender’s Office.  Put simply, I was scared, excited, frantic, and optimistic upon landing at Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Students involved with the Katrina-Gideon Project were placed into seven groups.  Some of the groups would be going to the local parish prisons to interview prisoners and work up case files, while others would go to the outlying prisons to interview defendants who had been relocated during Hurricane Katrina.  All would be expected to do their best and assist the public defender’s office in any capacity required.  I was fortunate to be placed in the group led by Paulino Duran, the head Sacramento Public Defender. Paulino led my group to Angola State Prison to interview inmates who had been transferred there from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

While I was thankful to be in the group headed to Angola State Prison, I was not excited about waking up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the train to Angola. What I didn’t know, and what Paulino explained on the way to Angola, was that Angola was one of the last plantation-style prisons in the U.S. Specifically, some of the inmates work in the fields during the day and earn two cents an hour for their efforts.  Other inmates worked in the processing plant—Angola is a self-sufficient prison with a processing plant and cannery—while some were required to be in their prison wings for 23 hours a day.  Paulino also explained that Angola was the largest prison in the U.S. in terms of inmate and acreage.  Angola also provided the setting for many highly publicized inmate crimes, escape attempts, as well as being the location du jure for many Hollywood motion pictures, such as Dead Man Walking and Monster’s Ball.

As we approached Angola, the first thing we encountered was the security gate. It was a mammoth over-crossing, and the police detail was extensive. An employee of the prison was assigned to our group, and he led us to where our clients were being held.  We approached our building, a seemingly normal prison building with a security checkpoint, an appeals chamber, and visiting rooms. We entered the security checkpoint and the employee led us to the room where the Orleans Parish Prisoners were being held. Upon entering the room, we were astonished to see about 15 prisoners sitting in rows to our immediately left. Many were our clients—but, much to our surprise, many were not.

My first client was a 40 year-old man arrested for cocaine possession.  He was a gentle man with four children and a steady job. His case was baffling because he had been incarcerated for over two years for possession of .06 grams of cocaine.  In addition, his bail had been continuously increased, with nary a justification.  At the outset, I asked him the questions I had prepared the night before. I wanted to know everything about the alleged crime; where the police were, where he was standing, was it daytime, where any witnesses available?  I also wanted to know about his background—did he have any business references, ties to the community, any prior convictions, was he on parole or probation, did he know how to read, was he taking any medication, was he a U.S. citizen, etc.  My goal was to draft the best possible case memorandum so that the New Orleans P.D. would be prepared for the next court appearance.

My second client was not on my scheduled list, and I did not have a case file related to his alleged criminal charges. As such, I had not prepared any questions, and did not know anything about this individual. He posed a unique challenge because he was charged with homicide and, up until that point, I was under the impression that we would only be dealing with relatively minor felonies. I was a little startled when he told me what crime was charged with, but I just applied the same line of questioning as the first interview.  I asked him about the crime, but because I didn’t have the case file, the questioning had a different tone.  I wanted to know excruciating details.  We wanted to know all of the parties involved, the facts of the underlying charge, was there any seized evidence, had he made any statements, and other questions relating to the basic nature of the charge.

Following the preliminary questions relating to my second client’s alleged crimes, my partner and I took some time to speak with him about everything from the Saints to world politics. This was by far the most engaging and important part of the trip for me. This simple dialogue—void of scripted questions—was what made me to relate to who my client was, and why in fact I wanted to help him.  He was a person just like me.  He had political views just like me.  He was an avid football fan like me, and rooted on Sundays with same zealousness as I did.

Following our interviews, I wrote memoranda to the New Orleans Public Defender’s office summarizing my client interactions and identifying the constellation of legal issues presented in my meetings.  I also made several recommendations regarding case posture and preliminary motions that should be filed.  It took me many days to complete the case summaries and recommendations, but I believe I prepared the public defender while advocating for my clients.  I also learned valuable lessons relating to litigation and the collaborative process.  For instance, I worked with some amazing lawyers, and was able to produce a written document that helped my clients during the disposition of their cases.  In addition, while interviewing my clients and drafting my case memorandum I learned about the basics of litigation and how the “system” actually worked.  I like to say I went to “litigation bootcamp” as it was necessary to get up to speed regarding statutory filing and hearing requirements, supporting paperwork, and making sure my client’s rights were preserved (or if they were violated).  Although couched in criminal pre-trial litigation, the awareness and exposure to filing deadlines, required documentation, and general pre-trial positioning continues to lend itself to my civil practice on a daily basis.

I arrived in New Orleans with lots of book knowledge, but no practical criminal experience. I hoped for a challenging (morally, emotionally, intellectually), eye-opening, influential experience, and I think I received just what I expected—and maybe even more.  As a member of this unique project, I was able to view a ravaged area, participate in the interviews of two men accused of crimes, and have spirited conversations with my peers centering around capital punishment, the criminal justice system, and southern hospitality.  Although all of the aforementioned objectives and experiences were important to me as a member of Katrina-Gideon Project, I think the most important aspect is that I was given an opportunity to help rebuild a historic city and aid individuals at a time when all appeared lost.  For that, I think I am a better person, and lawyer.