Originally created 07/21/02

Justice delayed

So much time has passed since Thomas Pruitt bled to death from bullet wounds that his family wonders whether the man accused will ever stand trial.

Worse, perhaps, for the 27-year-old homicide victim's family are growing concerns that no one in the Richmond County criminal justice system cares, said Mr. Pruitt's younger brother, Christopher Taylor.

"I think it's a big mess. It's been over two years; it's going to be three years. I don't know what they're doing down there," Mr. Taylor said in a telephone interview from his home in Jackson, Tenn. "We get no information. We're at a loss. We cannot afford to come back and forth to Georgia. I don't think they care."

The trial of Rolland Elliott, who faces a murder charge in Richmond County Superior Court in Mr. Pruitt's May 21, 2000, shooting death, has been scheduled and then postponed eight times. His is one of the many backlogged criminal cases damming the flow of justice in Richmond County Superior Court.

An Augusta Chronicle computer-assisted reporting project has found a huge backlog in the Augusta Judicial Circuit. Two previous studies since 1997 found similar backlogs. Compared with a 2000 study, the size of the backlog at the end of 2001 was virtually unchanged.

Of the cases that were scheduled for trial in 2001, 13 percent remained unresolved six months after the year ended. Standards from the American Bar Association say 98 percent of a court's criminal cases should be completed within 180 days, and every case should be closed within a year.

Superior Court Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. blames the backlog on a lack of courtrooms and said he hopes a new courthouse with more courtrooms will break the cycle. The existing municipal building is being renovated at a cost of $18 million to $40 million to create the new facility.

"But we're looking at a minimum of three years and possibly four," the chief judge said.

For years, the Augusta Judicial Circuit has carried the heaviest backlog percentage in Georgia. Three other Georgia judicial circuits - Atlanta, Cobb and Stone Mountain - had more open cases than Augusta at the end of 2000, the most recent year for which statewide data are available. However, those circuits handled 50 percent to 300 percent more cases than the Augusta Judicial Circuit, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts' report for 2002.

The Augusta Judicial Circuit also stands out as the only one, excluding the smallest and most rural, in another respect: In Richmond County, it's a guess which of the four judges who handle criminal cases will be on the bench each time a case is scheduled for a hearing or trial.

That's because criminal cases in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, unlike those in virtually every other jurisdiction in Georgia, are not assigned to judges, so no judge presides over a case from beginning to end. Even the four Augusta Judicial Circuit judges who preside over domestic matters practice case assignment.

Nevertheless, Judge Fleming remains steadfastly opposed to assigning cases.

"I don't think that would make a bit of difference," he said.

Some courtroom observers and officials say, however, that they feel the way cases are handled in the circuit does contribute to the problem.

In Fulton County Superior Court, with five times the caseload of Richmond County, a computer system randomly assigns cases to judges, said court administrator Steve Nevels. According to the most recent report from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the county had 15,182 new felony cases in 2000, and 22,346 cases were closed.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY Danny Craig said that if cases were assigned to judges, he would have prosecutors assigned to specific judges to provide continuity and consistency.

"It would be helpful for us if the same judge presided at trial that presided over pretrial evidentiary motions," Mr. Craig said. It would also be better, he said, if the same judge presided over the entire proceedings when several people are charged in the same case. That rarely happens in Augusta.

Although there is no one best case-management system, most court officials have adopted a judge-assignment system, said William Dressel, a retired Colorado state judge who is now the president of the National Judicial College.

Case assignment eliminates judge shopping, in which an attorney tries to steer a case to a particular judge perceived as being better for the client, Mr. Dressel said.

It also provides accountability by making individual judges responsible for seeing that specific cases progress through the system, he said. Case assignment can ensure that judges preside over an equal number of cases; ensure that judges can set their own calendars to steer cases through the system, building a knowledge of each case's facts and legal issues; provide consistency; and possibly eliminate an attorney's ability to delay or drop cases by giving different excuses to various judges.

As it is now, the Augusta Judicial Circuit handles criminal cases in mass gatherings attended by hundreds of people. Only three set dates are scheduled for criminal cases: arraignment, trial and sentencing.

EVEN JUDGE FLEMING acknowledges that the Monday calendar calls for criminal trials are chaotic and confusing. At 9 a.m., a judge begins going down a list of more than 70 cases, asking attorneys what will be done in each case. By 10 a.m., those inside the courtroom surge toward attorneys in the front of the room to try to understand what is going to happen. As those who have been inside the courtroom try to leave, 50 to 100 other people - most of them responding to summonses for jury duty - are trying to get inside.

Robert Grzeskiewicz is a veteran of such mass gatherings in Richmond County Superior Court. He doesn't mind the jostling crowds at the calendar calls for criminal trials he has been subpoenaed to attend. It's the confusion and waste of time that annoy him.

His most recent trip downtown to the municipal building was June 3. He was subpoenaed to testify in the trial of Preston Maldonado, accused in an attempted break-in at Mom & Pop's Convenience Store, which Mr. Grzeskiewicz owned until recently.

By sitting next to a news reporter, who was keeping track of the announcement of 75 criminal cases, Mr. Grzeskiewicz was able to learn that the case would not come up that day and leave court after about 40 minutes. In the past, he has spent hours trying to figure out whether he had to stay or could go.

"They could come up with some kind of system. Something better needs to be done," he said. "You sit there like a dummy. The crowd doesn't bother me; it's sitting for hours not knowing what's going on."

FOR JURORS, the process is only slightly less confusing, and it can be expensive. The massive surges of jurors in Superior Court cost Richmond County taxpayers $201,250 last year. Many days, jurors show up but no cases are tried that day, or the next. Regardless, the jurors still must be paid for the days they are there.

Tack on witness fees and the travel and lodging costs for out-of-town witnesses, and the 2001 cost for Richmond County Superior Court trials was $221,645.

By comparison, Chatham County, which has about the same number of criminal cases each year as Richmond County, paid about $110,888 in jury fees in a recent 12-month period, estimated Daniel E. DeLoach Jr., the court administrator.

In 2001, 33 weeks were set aside for trials of 2,320 cases, but fewer than 6 percent will require trials. The people willing to plead guilty - along with victims, witnesses and supporters of all involved - could have been eliminated from Monday morning calendar calls. No days are scheduled between arraignment and trial date to weed out those cases, though.

Instead, everyone shows up for Monday morning calendar calls, even those who intend to plead guilty. They are later set for sentencing hearings.

"The worst thing you can do is schedule time when nothing happens. ... Just setting dates or dockets is a waste of time," said Mr. Dressel, of the National Judicial College.

Most courts set a hearing date between arraignment and trial, which provides a timeline for filing motions and gives attorneys time to understand the evidence, and it can be used to set a firm cutoff date for plea negotiating, he said.

SOMETIMES IN Richmond County Superior Court, criminal cases seem to get lost. Claude Wiggleton's pending manslaughter case is an example. Mr. Wiggleton has pleaded innocent to voluntary manslaughter in the May 8, 2001, shooting death of 26-year-old Cedric Jackson.

In the 14 months since Mr. Jackson's death, the man accused of killing him has been scheduled for trial only once, in October, but it was delayed. Mr. Wiggleton is free on a $40,000 bond.

"I am waiting to see if justice will be done," said Mr. Jackson's mother, Betty Jackson.

Mr. Wiggleton's case is one of the 2,485 indictments issued from Jan. 1, 2001, through June 30, 2002. During that same time, only 1,485, or 60 percent, of those cases have been scheduled for trial.

Such a consistent backlog must be addressed, Mr. Dressel said.

"You need to figure out what is going on - and saying, 'It's the kind of cases' is not enough."

It's not just complex cases, such as homicides, that pile up in Richmond County Superior Court. According to The Chronicle's calculations, driving offenses took longer to dispose of, on the average, than violent offenses - 297 days, compared with 247.

When a court has a backlog of cases, the new cases wait at the end of the line, creating more backlog. For example, in Richmond County Superior Court, fewer than one-third of the people scheduled for trial in the first six months of this year were indicted in 2002.

JUDGE FLEMING disputed The Chronicle's finding that 115 pending cases set for trial last year had not been rescheduled for trial by June 30. He also questioned the accuracy of a list of pending cases compiled by The Chronicle. But a follow-up examination of court records by The Chronicle still found that only five of 243 cases listed as pending in The Chronicle's database had been closed.

It is a judge's responsibility to manage the court and its dockets, Mr. Dressel said. It's difficult work, but a judge must adhere to basic principles: treat all litigants fairly; provide a predictable schedule; move cases through the system in a timely manner; and do it all in the most cost-effective way possible.

Judge Fleming said recently that with more courtroom space available, the judges might be able to schedule court dates between arraignment and sentencing to slim down the number of cases that appear on trial calendars.

The size of the circuit itself could contribute to the problem. In Georgia, nearly half of the judicial circuits are composed of just one or two counties. The Augusta Judicial Circuit consists of Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties. That grouping hasn't changed since 1927, even though Columbia County's population has exploded and a number of judgeships have been added to the Superior Court bench to handle the growth in caseloads over the decades.

Typically, when one county's population has grown as much as Columbia County's, the circuit is split. The General Assembly creates judicial circuits, often based on a study by the Administrative Office of the Courts. Such a study starting that process begins with a request by the chief judge or local legislator.

Judge Fleming, however, said splitting Columbia County from the Augusta Judicial Circuit would be a bad idea because he believes larger circuits are more efficient.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.


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