Two judges took on Richmond County's shortage of courtroom space and backlog of criminal cases by holding back-to-back calendar calls in the same courtroom Monday morning.
The move had roughly 300 people crammed into a space designed to accommodate 194 and prompted a visit from the city fire marshal.
At 9 a.m., Courtroom 1 on the second floor of the municipal building was packed with defendants, their friends and relatives, witnesses, defense attorneys, prosecutors, court personnel and sheriff's deputies. People were bottlenecked at the entrance and spilled out into the hallway. Lines of people leaned against the marble walls; others stood wearily in the center aisle.
Someone called the fire department at about 10 a.m., according to Fire Marshal Bobby Joyner. The crowd had thinned out by the time the call was investigated, and Marshal Joyner said that people weren't in the hallway and that there wasn't a problem.
Judge Carlisle Overstreet announced that his and Judge Bernard Mulherin's calendar calls were being combined so all the lawyers could come to one place. The pair read through lists of cases, and attorneys responded with each case's status and its readiness or unreadiness.
Judge Overstreet said later in the day that the combined calls were necessary because there are only two Superior Court courtrooms and one was being used to hold potential jurors, who can't mix with defendants.
Judges typically don't hold calendar calls - which kick off trial weeks - simultaneously.
"It was certainly a rarity," Judge Overstreet said. "I don't think that's something you'll see being done a lot."
Of 164 cases called, 108 had been resolved. Attorneys in 33 cases said they would be ready for trial today, but none was ready Monday. Many attorneys were in Columbia County, where the death penalty trial of Jimmy Lee Rhodes was starting, or in Burke County, which also had a calendar call Monday morning.
Army Pfc. April Carrillo, a medic at Fort Gordon, sat on the back row for an hour and a half. She had a summons to testify in the case of John Lawton.
On Aug. 11, Pfc. Carrillo was driving on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and heard gunshots at a Citgo gas station. She stopped and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Marcus Taylor, but he died at the scene from gunshot wounds. Mr. Lawton is one of four defendants charged in the killing.
After court was adjourned, Pfc. Carrillo had no idea what to do next. She pushed her way through the crowd and asked Assistant District Attorney Willie Saunders. He said the case was continued until March 10 and told her to call him the next time she gets a subpoena.
Pfc. Carrillo is in the midst of a 68-week program to become a licensed practical nurse, and if she misses too much time she has to start over. She said having to come to court meant she will have to make up time on Saturdays.
"It's not that I mind, it's just that it's so crazy, and I don't know how many times I'll have to be here over and over again," Pfc. Carrillo said. "And I'm not in a position right now to do that."
For years, the Augusta Judicial Circuit has carried the heaviest backlog percentage in the state. The completion of Richmond County criminal cases consistently takes three times longer than the national average calculated by the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. repeatedly has said that he believes the problems will be eliminated after more courtrooms are built. Construction on a new judicial complex is to begin in August 2004.
Staff Writer Sandy Hodson contributed to this article.
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