The Augusta Chronicle followed those criminal cases throughout the year to determine how long it took to close cases, which ones linger the longest and how each of the eight Superior Court judges handle their caseload.
Criminal cases once took an average of 494 days to reach a final resolution, but in 2013 the average was 169 days.
One of the sharpest turnarounds for the court is in the number of days that cases remain on its dockets. In 2013, that number for cases ending in conviction was 100 days; for those ending with dismissal or acquittal, it was 167 days; and for those still pending at the end of the year, 124 days.
“I am well satisfied with the way that the cases are progressing,” District Attorney Ashley Wright wrote in an e-mail. “For many victims, the final resolution is the most important part of the process. It’s the step that allows them to let go and start moving forward.”
Cases involving victims are very important to stay on top of and ensure they are moving, said Superior Court Judge J. David Roper. But often, cases involving violent crimes with mandatory minimum prison sentences are the hardest to push, he said.
“Recently I was shocked that we actually had a murder plea. When you are assigned a murder case, you just assume it’s going to require a trial,” Roper said.
The most serious and violent cases are more complicated and have more issues the attorneys need to resolve, Wright said.
“Add to that the natural reluctance to admit to bad behavior and accept criminal responsibility, and you can see why those cases take a lot longer to resolve,” she said.
Of the cases that remained open at the end of the year, more than half were murder, armed robbery, child molestation cases, rape and drug trafficking.
All the Superior Court judges abhor cases pending for more than a year, especially when the defendant sits in the jail at a cost to taxpayers of about $50 a day, but they say they can only do so much to push a case.
Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. has a pending death penalty case that is 5 years old. In addition to the time-consuming series of mandatory, pretrial hearings, the case has been halted by a series of new defense attorneys, family deaths and other emergencies, mental evaluations and witness conflicts.
Still, at the end of the year only 25 of Blanchard’s 381 assigned cases were pending for more than a year.
Roper only had 23 cases pending for more than a year – including a death penalty case from 2009 – of his 437 assigned cases. But Roper had the highest percentage of pending cases at the end of the year, almost 51 percent.
“I’m not happy I’m the low man on the totem pole,” Roper said.
His core team of assigned prosecutors and defense attorneys from the public defender’s office work hard to move cases, he said.
“All the judges are trying to move cases, criminal cases, without a doubt,” said attorney Charles Lyons, who holds licenses to practice law in Georgia and South Carolina.
Cases move a lot faster in Augusta than across the river, he said, but one aspect he believes works better in South Carolina is that a defense attorney and prosecutor can go to the judge in chambers to hash out plea agreements.
In Augusta, several of the judges like to conduct status conferences, bringing both sides together in the courtroom to discuss the merits of the case and plea negotiations.
One development in 2013 caused delays in cases where multiple people were charged in the same indictment. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that attorneys in public defender offices could not represent more than one of those defendants if there is a conflict in presenting their defense – such as one defendant putting all the blame on a co-defendant.
After the April ruling, many people represented by the public defender’s office had to be reassigned to new, contract defense attorneys who needed time to learn about the cases.
Judge Daniel J. Craig is considering a minor change in managing his criminal caseload. He intends to use a system in which every case is assigned to a trial calendar after arraignment.
“That trial date will be the absolute latest week on which the case will be disposed. We’ll weight the cases based on charges and complexity in recognition of the average pre-trial preparation time that the type of case will require,” Craig wrote in an e-mail response.
While cases can be closed earlier than that trial date, both sides will have a deadline, which the judge believes can help attorneys with time management.