There were only eight jury trials in the 16th judicial district last year. Photograph: Laurence Mathieu-Lger for the Guardian
If he had more funding, LeGros would spend more time doing real lawyer work, as he puts it, instead of just processing his clients en masse. I can pretty much keep track of all of them, and most cases dont require much attention, he says by phone. But theres no way all those boys understand whats going on when they get their rights all together like that. I dont like it, but shit, Im just a country lawyer. What you going to do?
Yet the group pleas are only partly the result of an underfunded public defenders office, says Christopher Murell, a civil rights attorney in New Orleans and the executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, a criminal justice reform organization. It is also about a courtroom culture on the part of judges, DAs and public defenders alike of trying to get all the cases processed expediently, without friction.
The judges and DAs get angry at you for not giving them a heads up that youre going to file a motion, because that will mess up their schedule, says Murell. A fair trial is considered an interruption.
Cecelia Beanie Bonin, is the chief public defender of the district (and Le Gross boss). Her office is located adjacent to an above-ground cemetery, in a first-floor space that feels more like a basement. On a whiteboard at the back of one room, someone has listed a set of priorities:
#1: How to go about getting the waitlist moving.
#2: Review who needs an attorney.
And further down the list, in all caps, #10: PROCEDURE FOR SANITY.
When she took over the office in March 2015, Bonin thought she would begin by raising expectations. Her plan was to get control over the caseload, promote performance standards, and demand that her attorneys file more motions and have more meaningful conversations with their clients. She never considered that more than a year later, her attorneys would be watching helplessly during mass hearings like the one in St Martinville.
But Bonin soon realized that when an office is perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, little else is possible. She could not afford enough attorneys to actually discuss pleas in advance, let alone develop relationships with defendants. Nor could she find good, experienced lawyers who would work for her in the first place, given how little she was able to pay them. The ones she already employed all needed to work two jobs to supplement their salaries, which begin at $34,000 a year.
One of Bonins lawyers had 345 active cases but was working only 15 hours a week. The rest of the time, she ran a private practice.
Commit the same crime next time
In the 16th judicial district and across Louisiana, things have improved slightly for public defenders since July, when the state legislatures new budget went into effect. Controversially, it slashed funding for the lawyers who represent defendants in death penalty cases, and shifted that money to the overwhelmed district-level defenders. Now, defendants facing the death penalty are finding themselves on waitlists for legal counsel.
Even with the shift in the budget, Rhonda Covington still labors alone, and the mass pleas have continued. One summer day in New Iberia, just down the road from St Martinville, Judge Thibodeaux turns toward a plea box of a dozen poor defendants. Smiling, he says to them: Yall just need to all commit the same crime next time, so we can do this faster.
A public defender goes over to them, learns their names, and makes a deal.
Then the judge starts in, mass-processing them by reading off their rights.
Do you understand your right to a jury trial?
Yes, sir, they all answer.
Do you understand your right to confront your accusers?
I cant hear you. Say, Yes, sir, the judge says to one defendant.
Do you understand that you have the right to counsel when the state proceeds against you?
The public defender is not paying attention. He is talking to the next batch of defendants, scribbling down their pleas.