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INVESTIGATIVE UNIT: Could violent suspects walk free on a technicality?

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ASCENSION PARISH- Nearly two dozen suspects in Ascension Parish accused of committing a host of crimes are eligible to walk free. That's according to one public defender who claims it can happen without a trial.

Jarret Ambeau is a public defender in Division A in Ascension Parish. He claims at least 21 defendants had their right to a speedy trial violated.

The problem is so serious, District Attorney Ricky Babin held training sessions for his employees to prevent problems from continuing. Resources, a lack of oversight, and incomplete paperwork is what Babin blamed. Meanwhile, Ambeau said the situation is ripe for a federal lawsuit.

The chain-linked fences adorned with sharp barbs help keep the public feeling safe in Ascension Parish. Alleged criminals sleep at the jail locked up. But a number of them could walk free, if they haven't already been released, on a technicality. For the past seven years, Jarrett Ambeau has represented those suspects. He's a public defender for Division "A."

"My experience in Ascension Parish from my inception of being there, is that, from the top down in the DA's office, everyone is concerned with truth and justice," Ambeau said. "So this is very out of character."

Following the August flood which swamped many homes in Ascension Parish, Ambeau began noticing a disturbing pattern. A number of defendants in his division were not being granted their rights under the state's speedy trial law.

"The district attorney is required in a certain amount of time to charge those people with a crime or release them from incarceration," Ambeau said. "That particular provision of the law is being violated on a regular basis."

It's called Article 701. It spells out a timeline for defendants. They must be formally charged by the district attorney's office within 45 days for a misdemeanor, 60 days for a felony and 120 days for any offense like rape and murder that could carry a life or death sentence. But a spreadsheet obtained by the Investigative Unit shows in Division "A" alone, there are at least 21 defendants who have stayed in jail far longer than the law allows. Seven of them are accused of committing violent offenses: charged with murder, attempted murder and felony carnal knowledge.

"I''ve gotten feedback from his staff about how we will go about fixing it," Ambeau said. "(They said) We are working diligently to fix the problem, that they are aware of it."

When Ambeau was asked if the District Attorney's office said what the delay was, Ambeau responded, "No, no one has taken responsibility to be frank with you. I'm the sole party that has taken culpability honestly. The DA doesn't want to admit any fault."

Two months ago Ambeau sent a strongly worded email to those within District Attorney Ricky Babin's office. The email lists the defendants eligible for release and states, "I have no desire to make all of our lives difficult by being unnecessarily adversarial, but I must uphold my duty to my clients, the court, and the indigent defender board for which I work."

"It's very concerning to me from a community members perspective," Ambeau said. "I have children, and a wife. I live in the community. But my duty to my clients and the constitution out weighs all of that and we will press forward."

District Attorney Ricky Babin says changes have already been made to prevent future delays from happening. He says despite those delays, none of the dangerous defendants have been released.

When asked what is the reason for the delay, Babin said, "It could be a myriad of things, could be needing additional information. We've had issues with a victim, where we could not make victim contact."

Babin said he's not blaming anyone for what happened in his office. A process to streamline cases is underway so delays don't continue.

"I think we can speed up the process," Babin said. "First of all, monitoring more tightly, from the arrest to when the bill is filed. We get files different ways."

Babin points to the way files come in, and if they aren't complete, sometimes they can be placed on the side. He also said in his small office made up of 21 ADA's, the flood hit him them hard, with eight total losses. But those excuses don't matter to Marjorie Esman. She's the head of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Louisiana. It's an organization that preserves the rights guaranteed by the constitution.

She was alarmed at what was going on in Ascension Parish.

"Something has to give," Esman said. "Either we let defendants go because their rights have been violated, which is what we have to do. For everybody else, we have to make sure we have enough money to provide them with lawyers to assert the defenses they are entitled to assert."

Esman says it doesn't matter if the system or the courts are overloaded. The laws on the books also protect those who are locked up no matter what they are accused of.

"If these people who are charged with committing crimes, some of which have some degree of seriousness, if they have to be released because their procedural rights have been violated, yes the community should be concerned," Esman said.

It's why Ambeau continues to fight. He recognizes going against the organization prosecuting his clients isn't in his best interest.

"At this point, I feel like I'm at wits end," Ambeau said.

Ambeau admits some fault for allowing his clients to sit in jail beyond what the law allows. But he says, he's now trying to make it right. District Attorney Ricky Babin says his employees recently went through a training session to make sure reports for defendants are completed, and what needs to be done to speed the process along so people are charged in a timely fashion. Ambeau filed nearly two dozen court motions in reference to the defendants just referenced in this report. A judge is supposed to hear each one in two weeks.

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