Convicts who can’t afford an attorney — and there aren’t many who can — know the odds are stacked against them if they file an appeal.
It is not unknown for inmates to have a legitimate grievance and for jailhouse lawyers to advance cogent and well-researched arguments on their behalf. But most “pro se” briefs are probably frivolous and nonsensical, and it is only natural that judges should tend to look askance as they buckle down to the task of reading them.
The judges weren’t looking askance over at the state Court of Appeal in Gretna, however, because they weren’t looking at all. For 13 years, the court ignored the lucubrations of all convicts who appealed on their own account.
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.
That was not the only aspect of life at the Fifth Circuit that stuck in Peterson’s craw. In his suicide note to the judges, he asked, “How many of you have called and asked me to ‘handle’ traffic tickets or to get someone out of jail without bond or to clear up contempt charges pending against friends? Never once have I declined to help someone you sent to me or refused to solve some problem you had.”