Hearing delays high in Orleans Criminal Court, report says

Delays are ingrained in how Orleans Parish Criminal Court operates, according to one group of court watchers, and the practice jeopardizes both justice and efficiency.

Court Watch NOLA released its latest report on operations at the criminal court Wednesday, and the document shows that about 63 percent of the hearings that the group’s volunteers attended in 2012 were delayed or “continued” at some point. Those findings follow a trend that the group noted in 2011. In particular, the group found that initial trial dates were pushed back 70 percent of the time, according to the report.

Brad Cousins, executive director of Court Watch, said that a “culture of continuances” has set in at the courthouse.

“The delays plaguing criminal court in 2012 didn’t just have one cause,” said Cousins, adding that delays in cases allow witnesses to disappear, evidence to evaporate and innocent defendants to languish in jail. “Everyone involved had a part to play.”

Court Watch volunteers monitor violent crimes involving people, crimes with special circumstances or high media profile and crimes recommended for monitoring by the community.

The report states that the volunteers attended 3,000 hearings in 2012.

While the report points to a variety of factors that lead to delays, such as defendants who aren’t transported from jail and unprepared attorneys, it does note that continuances are more common in certain sections. It also claims that judges have the most power to correct the problem by holding attorneys responsible and refusing to grant delays.

Based on the report, Judges Julian Parker, Lynda Van Davis, Benedict Willard and Laurie White had continuances in more than 70 percent of the scheduled proceedings the group observed. There are no national figures on what constitutes a normal continuance rate, but Cousins said 70 percent would be high anywhere.

“There is always a healthy number of continuances, but that healthy number is not two-thirds,” Cousins said, adding that only two sections had delays in fewer than 50 percent of the hearings Court Watch observed. “That means that only two judges actually had most of their hearings when they were supposed to be held.”

However, Judge Laurie White took issue with the group’s findings, adding that Court Watch often ignores relevant information. For example, White said that if prosecutors and defense attorneys both agree on a delay, the judge is not legally allowed to force a trial to proceed. White said joint requests for continuances are very common, but Court Watch doesn’t note that in its report.

“We have to follow the law as a judge … It takes it completely out of a judge’s realm,” White said. “My goal is to try cases and move them. This isn’t about me not being ready; this is about the lawyers not being ready.”

White also questioned Court Watch’s characterization as a volunteer group, claiming that many of the people who observe cases are actually students working for class credit. She said the group has moved from its initial mission of monitoring specific cases to counting how often judges hold sidebars in their courtrooms. White said the judges in criminal court are constantly seeking to move their dockets quickly, yet are being criticized unfairly.

“We are the hardest working judges in the state,” White said. “Court Watch, apparently its only mission is to report minutia that looks bad about judges.”

The report did note that defense attorneys asked for continuances more often than prosecutors in 2012. Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said public defenders often deal with substantial caseloads and a lack of resources, which means it takes them more time to prepare serious cases. Bunton noted that the delays should be viewed as part of the process of seeking justice, and he doesn’t expect them to disappear any time soon.

“(Felony cases) are the highest stakes, most serious and most complex cases in our criminal justice system,” Bunton said. “I don’t see so much a culture of continuances on our part as conscientious lawyering.”

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman noted that Canizzarro supports what Court Watch does but agrees with Bunton that felony cases naturally involve more delays. He said that if Court Watch monitored all the cases at criminal court, the group would find things move pretty efficiently overall.

“Those are the cases that sometime those cases may take longer to get to trial,” Bowman said. “I don’t think it’s indicative of what’s going on in every single case.

However, the report does note that the cases with the highest number of continuances are purse snatchings, while those that have the fewest number of continuances are first-degree murder trials.