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Student Lawyers Win Louisiana Supreme Court Case; Statute Declared Unconstitutional

December 02, 2004

Student attorneys from the Tulane University Criminal Law Clinic convinced the Louisiana Supreme Court to overturn a state law that placed certain mentally ill defendants on probation for periods that could last as long as the maximum sentence for the alleged crime.

Third-year Tulane student lawyer Candis Mitchell and Brandy Sheely, a 2004 graduate argued that imposing indefinite probation on criminal defendants found permanently incompetent to stand trial and not dangerous to themselves or others violated the constitutional rights of client Shantell Denson. By subjecting Ms. Denson to indefinite probation for a crime for which was never tried, she was deprived of due process under the Louisiana and United States Constitutions.

Denson was found permanently incompetent to stand trial, and not dangerous either to herself or others.  Nevertheless, she spent three years on probation and approximately eighteen months in the general population of a women's prison, because there was no room for her in an appropriate psychiatric facility.  In its opinion, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that the state should have instead instituted civil commitment proceedings or released her.

"This case illustrates how work done by student lawyers in our Criminal Law Clinic can produce systemic change," explained Tulane University Criminal Law Clinic Director Pamela Metzger. "Cases handled by the Criminal Law Clinic often defend the constitutional rights of the accused and the Denson case is an example of how our work can result in improvements to the Louisiana justice system."

Next step: legislative reform
Students in Tulane's Legislation Clinic are now drafting a proposal for legislation that would meet the needs of people like Ms. Denson.  And, the Tulane Civil Clinic is evaluating the viability of a lawsuit challenging the State's practice of using jails to house mentally ill people when the State Forensic Hospital is full.

State of Louisiana versus Shantell Denson can be found at  http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2004/04ka0846.opn.pdf .


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