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Law

Trials In Gyms, Cases Delayed: With NC Pandemic Logjam, Justice 'Slow As Molasses'

gavel at courtroom
William Johnson
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US Airforce Photo

After more than eight months without jury trials, Union County is holding its first Superior Court trial this week.

Scheduling that trial — or any trial — hasn't been easy. District Attorney Trey Robison said one felony case his office tried to schedule had to be delayed because the defense attorney was quarantined. Another — a breaking-and-entering case — couldn't be tried because someone in the defendant's household contracted COVID-19.

Finally, the district attorney's office found a case that could be tried — an appeal of a DWI case. These cases tend to be less complicated than most felonies heard in Superior Court, but the pandemic made seating a jury extremely time-consuming, Robison said.

The Union County courthouse doesn't have any rooms big enough to seat all the potential jurors while observing social distancing, so several separate jury pools had to be called.

And while some North Carolina courtrooms seated a couple hundred people before the pandemic, they now seat fewer than 30 people in addition to court personnel.

Further complicating matters, a smaller-than-usual number of people summoned for jury duty actually showed up, Robison said. He speculated that some prospective jurors stayed away because they were worried about catching the virus.

"It's just as slow as molasses," Robison said of the current jury selection process.

There has been an increase of pending criminal cases across North Carolina's courts.
Credit NC Courts
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There has been an increase of pending criminal cases across North Carolina's courts.

Robison isn't the only prosecutor struggling to move cases through the courts.

An analysis of statewide case data by the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network shows the number of pending felony cases increasing and dockets getting older, even as fewer cases are filed.

To be sure, it's normal for the courts to experience fluctuations in filed and pending cases year over year.

Over the last five years, for example, the number of felony cases filed has steadily decreased, while the number of pending cases at the end of each fiscal year has increased. That's because North Carolina courts are chronically underfunded and understaffed, officials say.

But the coronavirus has only added to the courts' problems.

District attorneys across North Carolina said the pandemic requires them to change drastically the way they prosecute cases and run their offices.

In Union County, the suspension of trials over the past eight and a half months gave felony defendants more leverage, Robison said.

"We suddenly had folks who had no incentive to plead," Robison said. "They knew if we rejected their plea offer, we could not bring their case to trial."

But Robison said COVID-19 has had the biggest effect on lower-level cases in district court — traffic cases and misdemeanors including domestic abuse and DWI cases. District court has been operating at just 25% to 30% of its usual capacity, the DA said.

"In district court, we were stretched to our limit even before COVID-19. That's really what's keeping me up at night — all the district court cases that we can't get to."

In the old days, the DA's office would set aside Fridays to handle hundreds of traffic cases in crammed courtrooms. But since the spring, COVID-19 has made that impossible, so, many traffic cases have been postponed for months.

The backlog of cases is "just piling up, and it depresses me," Robison said. "We're doing what we can do."

Courts Vs Coronavirus

In some cases, doing what they can means simply letting go.

DA Ashley Hornsby Welch — who serves the 43rd Prosecutorial District covering Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Cherokee, Clay, Swain and Graham counties in the southwestern corner of the state — said her office has dismissed low-level traffic citations and other infractions. Doing so, she said, helped reduce foot traffic across the seven county courthouses where her office operates.

"COVID-19 continues to be a serious concern despite the safety measures now in place, such as requiring face masks and practicing social distancing," she said. "Employees work from home when possible. Mostly, however, that's not possible."

Hornsby Welch said several of her employees have tested positive and others have been exposed and had to quarantine.

Even as jury trials are slowly coming back to the courtroom, her options for trying cases are limited since criminal court sessions are limited to just one week.

That means she and her staff are having to identify cases that do not require numerous witnesses and complex evidence.

Like Robison in Union County, Welch is also grappling with a higher rate of people not showing up for jury duty, so she's also trying to avoid cases that need larger jury pools.

"This entire situation — courts v. coronavirus — has felt like a high-wire balancing act. It's not just us, it is the entire judicial system, as well as law enforcement and defense attorneys," she said.

An analysis of case data provided by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts shows the number of felony cases pending across the state has steadily increased year-over-year.

Looking at caseloads between July 1 and Oct. 31, 2019, and the same period in 2020, the number of new felony cases filed decreased by nearly 4%, while the number of pending felony cases increased by 15%.

'I Feel Like I Have To Reinvent The Wheel Every Week'

Iredell County Clerk of Superior Court Jim Mixson said he's felt the increased burden of COVID-19, even as the number of cases filed in his office has dropped.

His office has to notify 600 to 800 people each week that their hearing for a traffic ticket or minor criminal offense was rescheduled.

Mixson said they've also had to re-schedule between 35 and 40 jury trials that would have been held in the time since trials were suspended in March.

The county's first jury trial is scheduled to start Dec. 14. The court is partnering with the county's school system to have the first trial off-site because the courthouse doesn't have enough room to properly social distance.

For example, a typical trial will have about 70 potential jurors show up for selection. The courtroom can usually hold 150 people. With COVID restrictions, it's down to about 30.

Until the COVID restrictions are lifted, trials will be held in an old gymnasium, which the school system now uses as a community training facility.

The entire first trial will be held there. After that, Mixson said, the county might do only jury selection there and the actual case in the courthouse.

But holding a jury trial off-site takes a tremendous amount of coordination among the county manager, school system, sheriff's office, county facilities folks, clerks staff, judicial staff, DAs office and the Administrative Office of the Courts' technology staff.

The courts are on the state's network and they'll need to marry that to the school's Wi-Fi. They'll also have to coordinate security with the sheriff's office and determine how to transport and store evidence.

"All of these things are normal to us, part of our everyday course of doing business," Mixon said. "Now they have to be rethought."

"I feel like I have to reinvent the wheel every week. Things that normally take a few minutes of work now require hours."

Mixson said it will take several years for the court system to dig out of its backlog of jury trials.

Those Awaiting Trial Feel Weight Of Backlog

Joey Prince is feeling the impact of delayed criminal trials firsthand.

Prince was arrested in 2018 and charged with embezzling money during his tenure as the animal control director in Columbus County. Prince has pleaded not guilty and maintains he is innocent. He wants to go to trial.

But that's not been possible.

Jon David, the DA for the prosecutorial district that includes Columbus, Bladen and Brunswick counties, offered Prince a plea deal in late September but Prince turned that down.

While he's waited for justice, Prince said he has been unable to get a steady job and his family has suffered.
"I've been turned down for jobs because of this," Prince said.

"It makes you very angry, you go to court, you have a court date, you show up and the district attorney's office just says we want a continuance."

David, the prosecutor, said his office offered Prince a bench trial — a trial without a jury where a judge would decide — in December.

But Prince declined that, and thinks he can get a fairer verdict from a 12-person jury. He told reporters his attorney advised his case might go to trial in January, but it would likely be March before he stands before a jury.

In general, David said his office can only monitor the ongoing situation.

"We are very encouraged that Brunswick County was one of the first counties in the state to have a jury trial last week," David said in a statement. "However, with COVID-19 numbers spiking, we are mindful that the court system may again need to develop other solutions for the disposition of felony cases."

DA's Reorganize Offices As Backlog Of Violent Cases Mounts

Court data reviewed by the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network suggest violent felonies are taking significantly longer to resolve since the pandemic began. From July 1 to Oct. 31, the median age of pending assault by strangulation cases was 264 days — 50% longer than the same period last year.

Cases of assault inflicting serious bodily injury increased by more than one-third. Cases with murder and first-degree murder charges both increased by more than 15% and the median age of habitual misdemeanor assault cases increased by more than 25%.

In Durham County, DA Satana Deberry focused on reducing the backlog of homicide cases when she took office in January 2019. Her office reduced the number of pending cases from just over 100 to 89.
But that number grew again during the pandemic, with the office unable to schedule trial, back to 104 cases.

Deberry's office won't resume jury trials until 2021 and has had to reduce the number of misdemeanor cases they handle in a day due to social distancing requirements.

As a result, her office has implemented a new calendering process for district court cases — where most misdemeanor and traffic cases are handled — to make sure urgent cases are scheduled quickly. Deberry also created a district court team to ensure cases are handled as efficiently as possible, her spokeswoman said.

In Mecklenburg County, DA Spencer Merriweather has also reorganized his office.

Merriweather has roughly 700 criminal defendants awaiting a trial in Superior Court, where felony charges are tried. That number includes more than 100 homicide cases and about 150 cases involving other violent crimes.

To address the backlog of cases involving violent crimes better, Merriweather combined two teams that handled drug cases, property crimes and other felonies into one team and redistributed staff to the violent crimes and homicide teams.

"We have to be really thoughtful about what our priorities are," Merriweather said. "We, in 2019, are coming off a year in Mecklenburg County where we had over 100 homicides. We had full expectations of having 20 homicide trials and we got through about four or five and then we had to stop and we've stopped ever since."

This week, the first jury trial in Mecklenburg County since March ended in a mistrial due to fears that jurors had been exposed to COVID-19.

Court officials rearranged courtroom seating to ensure social distancing and selected cases that lent themselves to speedier trials. But jury deliberations in the case had been suspended for more than a week after a juror began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms at home before Thanksgiving.

Merriweather said he will try to keep simple drug cases from clogging court dockets. Instead of prosecuting simple drug possession cases criminally, his office will refer them to recovery agencies and other service providers.

Part of the decision-making, Merriweather said, was prompted by the reality that it would take about two years for a simple drug possession case to get to trial with the current backlog.

"Looking at some of those minor drug offenses, the question is whether or not the two years that we might have to wait to resolve a case like that and see whether someone is going to go through a recovery court," Merriweather said.

"Are we willing to spend that amount of time if we know that means someone who has lost a kid is going to have to wait to get their cases resolved?  To me that choice is clear."

This story was jointly reported and edited by Jordan Wilkie, Laura Lee and Frank Taylor of Carolina Public Press; Ames Alexander, Gavin Off and Gary Dotson of The Charlotte Observer; Tyler Dukes and Lucille Sherman of The Raleigh News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Emily Featherston of WECT; Travis Fain of WRAL, and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.

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