Despite progress in 2008, DA says, 'we are still behind'
By Shavonne Potts
This year alone the Rowan County District Attorney’s office has disposed of 19 murder cases, nine of which were for separate murders.
The number might seem small, but the result is large.
With 40 people currently awaiting trial on murder-related charges, the District Attorney’s office must represent the victims in each of those crimes. It sets a goal to prosecute as many as six or seven cases in a given year.
“In a general sense, we try to dispose of as many as are filed. In 2008, we went over that, but we are still behind,” said District Attorney Bill Kenerly.
Kenerly explained the reason cases take so long is varied.
One of the reasons is because the way a case is defended and prosecuted has become more complex over the past six to eight years.
“If we had no backlog and a murder happened today. It would take a year and a half,” he said.
Added to the time it takes to try a case, the number of murders in 2006 added to his office’s backlog.
There is one murder case from 2005 that is pending. The victim in that case recently died, making the defendants’ guilty plea to attempted murder null. Five murder-related cases stem from 2006 killings or attempted killings. Seven more are from 2007. And last year, at least six murders or attempted murders were committed. A few cases from 2008 have been dismissed.
Those numbers don’t include cases the district attorney’s office handles that are a result of non-violent felonies, assaults and misdemeanor crimes.
Probation violations have contributed to an increase in the jail population. Kenerly said 20 percent of court time is devoted to processing probation violations, with a separate day of court assigned just to address them.
Population and staffing, Kenerly has said in the past, are problems that exist beyond the local level that contribute to the overwhelmed judicial system.
As the population increases, so does the number of crimes. There are not enough court personnel, crime lab investigators and other authorities to handle the increased numbers quickly.
Jail overcrowding also contributes to the problem.
One of the biggest issues has been not having enough courtroom space. That should change in the next few months with the completion of two new courtrooms to hold superior and family court. They are currently under construction and should be completed this spring, Kenerly said.
Also, a request to allow the superior court term more weeks was granted. The state approved 36 weeks of a superior court term beginning this year. In 1971, there were 10 weeks of criminal superior court. Just six years later, that doubled.
In 2008, 27 weeks were allocated for superior court, with eight special sessions.
The typical number is 25, Kenerly said.
“We could not request before this because we didn’t have the space,” Kenerly said.
Another way the courts allievate some of the crowding is by allowing defendants to enter guilty pleas to lower-level felonies in district court. This prevents a backlog in superior court.
Rowan County adopted this concept years ago.
A few North Carolina counties actually have a substantial number of pleas in district court. About 40 counties do not and just more than 21 counties have five or fewer cases.
“Ten years ago, the law allowed us to have people who pleaded guilty in district court,” Kenerly said.
The most current availabe statistics show that in Rowan County from July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2008, there were 503 felony convictions disposed of in district court.
Besides Rowan, other counties that dispose of felony cases in district court include Forsyth, New Hanover, Wake, Rutherford and Buncombe.