Pro se per se

I’m a little late on writing about this story (via several sources), but it sure is a doozy.

You know how it’s common knowlege that most appeals aren’t successful? Well, if you were a pro-se petitioner in Louisiana for the last 13 years, you knew that you wouldn’t win. Why is that? Because the Chief Judge of their Court of Appeals directed his clerk to summarily deny all appeals from pro-se petitioners without circulating the appeal to other judges.

The clerk, ridden with guilt, committed suicide earlier this year and left a note confessing everything.

This immoral and apparently illegal policy was in place until Jerrold Peterson, the staffer charged with implementing it, blew his brains out in May of last year. Peterson was driven to it in part, his suicide note suggested, by guilt over the nefarious tasks the judges made him perform.

In his note Peterson explained how the court gave indigent appellants the bum’s rush.

Although every criminal writ application is supposed to be reviewed by three judges, he was deputed to winnow out any that had been filed pro se and arrange for their automatic rejection.

Thus were an estimated 2,500 appeals deep-sixed without any judicial consideration whatsoever.

Now, facing public embarassment and possible ethical violations, the Louisiana Supreme Court has stepped in and asked…get this…the same appellate court to look at the appeals again. Note that they did not ask the Court to conduct an investigation into this practice, but simply to consider those appeals that were so summarily denied.

Because, if we placate the defendants with another cursory look at their appeals, we can sweep the ethical violations under the carpet.

At first this whole thing seemed rather odd to me. After all, how is this even possible? Here’s how:

Edward Dufresne, Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit, took charge of pro se appeals in 1994. He then had Peterson prepare rulings denying writs for all of them and signed off “without so much as a glance,” according to the suicide note. “No judge ever saw the writ application before the ruling was prepared by me,” Peterson wrote in a second suicide note to the Judiciary Commission.

The rulings also bore the names, though not the signatures, of judges Marion Edwards and Wally Rothschild. Neither Edwards nor Rothschild had any clue as to what was in the applications, or even knew that they had been filed, according to Peterson.

So you’ve got one complicit judge and maybe three. But there are 5 more on that court. What of them? Are we to really believe that these 5 (or 7) other judges never once questioned the stark absence of pro-se appeals? Particularly in Louisiana, whose system has the following characteristics:

  • About 90 percent of criminal defendants in Louisiana are indigent.
  • Louisiana only provides post-conviction legal aid in death penalty cases.  Everyone else must either hire a lawyer, find a lawyer to handle their case pro bono, or handle the appeal themselves.  Obviously, most have no choice but to opt for the latter.
  • One criminal defense lawyer in Louisiana told me that if you’re convicted of murder in Louisiana and you’re innocent, you’re actually better off getting the death penalty.  At least then you’ll get a team of lawyers, investigators, and experts to help with your appeal.

This from a state whose criminal justice system was already crumbling. It’s hard to believe that people such as Judge Dufresne take an oath to uphold the law and to prove equal protection under it. Disbarment may be enough, but only barely.

Justice delayed is no justice at all.

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  1. Pingback: Must read: Outrage in Louisiana criminal appeals court « Two Good Hands

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