Video: New Orleans courthouse out of order

By Anchor
updated 10/14/2005 7:56:48 PM ET 2005-10-14T23:56:48

Of all the rooms and buildings damaged by Hurricane Katrina, there is one building in New Orleans where the damage is long-lasting. The city's courthouse is still shut down and raising concerns about just how to restore law and order.

In a courthouse basement, Kimberly Butler, clerk of the District Court of Orleans Parish, goes through boxes of police evidence — merchandise, drugs and guns — that was once orderly but now is soaked from four feet of water.

And now, as Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan says, New Orleans' criminal justice system is at risk of collapse.

“Which is the worst thing possible when we're asking people to come back and rebuild our great city,” says Jordan.

It's more than just damaged evidence. It's also witnesses who've been evacuated and can't be found. There’s no one to serve on juries, and there are suspects who, by law, must be tried in the next few months or let go.

“This is a blanket problem,” says criminal defense attorney Laurie White.

Guilty or not, she says, the suspects now detained at the city's makeshift jail are being penalized — especially the poor.

“You have to let these people back in the community if you can't prosecute them and if they don't have the evidence,” says White.

Tyrone Wells was arrested two summers ago after an alleged assault at a restaurant owned by Jose Vazquez.

“They went into the restaurant,” says Vazquez’s widow, Kimberly. “A struggle broke out, and my husband was stabbed to death.”

Kimberly Vazquez doesn't know where the suspect was taken, or whether he'll ever stand trial. Wells has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

Some evidence may be recovered, but there's worry about long-term funding for courts.

“Bad guys need to be locked up,” says clerk Kimberly Butler, “and there has to be a system to do that.”

A system for victims, their families and a city whose confidence in justice has been tossed with the wind.

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