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Lack of death penalty attorneys leads to wait for justice

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BATON ROUGE - A News 2 investigation uncovered that death penalty trials are being pushed back over and over again due to the lack of qualified lawyers, and the families of victims are giving up hope during their long wait for justice.

There are only two public defenders in Baton Rouge certified to handle death penalty cases, and a number families say that isn't enough. As a result the process of getting any case which involves a death penalty into court drags out for years, with other attorneys babysitting it until a certified attorney is available.

Bobby Arnold told News 2 he's seen that happen in other cases. His son, 21 year old Aaron Arnold, was murdered in 2006 outside Olive Garden on Siegen Lane while helping a co-worker. Sanchez Brumfield was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder, but was later given life in prison since his co-defendant pled guilty and received a lesser sentence. The triggerman, Tracey Young, signed a "contract for life" with Hillar Moore even though the death penalty was originally on the table.

Arnold wanted death, but said his family didn't want to wait as long as it would have taken to pursue that punishment. So he left the decision up to Moore, even though he says both men responsible for his son's death deserve to die.

"You intended to kill him, to shoot him in the heart," he told News 2. "And then to watch them in the trials laugh while a 911 tape was being played of my son dying, that's just no remorse."

Frank Neuner, the chairman of the state Public Defender Board, says there are 96 lawyers statewide certified to handle death penalty cases. Only 12 are in the Baton Rouge region, and of those only two are free public defenders.

Ten people are currently on trial in Baton Rouge and facing the potential of the death penalty. The law requires each to have two defense attorneys, which means 20 are needed to handle those cases alone.

"It's a lot more work to defend these cases emotionally... and they don't get paid any extra if they're in a two- or three-week trial versus a one-day trial," Neuner said. "I know it's very stressful for the families involved and I feel for those families, but it's also stressful for the accused that they get a fair trial according to the U.S. Constitution."

Neuner points out that the state sometimes gets it wrong: seven people on death row have been exonerated.

And while attorneys, public defenders and district attorneys try to sort through the resulting mess, the victims' families are left waiting for justice.

"We're the only ones that will worry about this," Arnold said. "I'm not saying it's just another case to them, I'm just saying that they have to move on to the next case. We don't. This is the case the rest of our lives."

The next death penalty trial in Baton Rouge is scheduled to begin in two weeks. Dominique Smith is accused of killing two people at a park five years ago.


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