The man accused of killing New Orleans Police Officer Marcus McNeil was in court Tuesday, but instead of being arraigned, the court is now scrambling to find attorneys to represent him.
Facing the possibility of the death penalty for first-degree murder of a police officer, Darren Bridges had been represented by the Capital Defense Project of Southeast Louisiana.
But lead capital defense attorney Kerry Cuccia said his office can’t represent Bridges due to a full caseload and recent state budget cuts.
“Because of funding, we could not proceed on with the case. And so we had to put the court on notice that we could not proceed, so the arraignment couldn't go on,” Cuccia said.
Cuccia said budget cuts that took effect last year have reduced his office to four attorneys, and their current caseload is at the maximum allowed under American Bar Association standards adopted by the office.
“It's unfortunate that two years ago the Legislature limited the amount of money that the Louisiana Public Defender Board could put into the capital programs, who are shouldering 85 to 90 percent of the capital cases in the state of Louisiana.” Cuccia said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said capital cases require far more resources than other type of cases. When a defendant faces the possibility of death, a defense team must include a lead attorney, a supporting attorney, a mitigation specialist, investigators and, in most cases, expert witnesses.
“It's not so simplistic as to say we just need to fund one attorney,” said Goyeneche, a former prosecutor. “You need to fund a whole defense team that includes both the people that are in the courtroom and the people that are in the offices doing the investigations and doing some of the support work.”
Judge Franz Ziblich set a new court hearing for next Wednesday to determine defense counsel.
Cuccia said he provided Ziblich a list of attorneys certified by the Louisiana Public Defender’s Board to represent Bridges.
Whoever ends up being appointed to the case, they won’t come from the Orleans Public Defender’s Office. Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said his cash-strapped office also lacks the personnel to take on the case.
Death penalty cases are rare in New Orleans, and there is only one other such case pending in the city. It's the nine other capital cases around the state that has the Louisiana Capital Defense attorneys maxed out, Cuccia said.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said he hopes to get quickly get Bridges’ case back on track for trial.
“We are ready to proceed forward with the case so that Officer McNeil's family can have their day in court,” Cannizzaro said. “It is our hope that this extremely important case will not be unduly delayed by dilatory tactics intended to stall matters to the detriment of the witnesses, victims and survivors of this highly regarded officer.”