Originally created 05/12/05

Huge change for Augusta

It sounds boring. It's hard to understand. But next to the future of Fort Gordon and the upcoming capital improvement elections, it might be one of the most important things to happen in Augusta in 2005.

A simple two-paragraph letter from the Georgia Supreme Court has overturned how the Augusta Judicial Circuit manages its thousands of cases.

So what? Here's what: It could save taxpayers millions through more efficient case handling - but even more important than that, it may save victims of rape, assault and other crimes untold emotional damage from having to gear up for trial unnecessarily for weeks at a time.

Currently, cases are put on a calendar in a linear fashion. On any given Monday when trial assignments are made, no one - not the district attorney's office, not the defense attorneys, not the victims or the witnesses or the defendants or the interested bystanders, not even most of the Superior Court judges - knows which trials will be heard.

The result of that: The District Attorney's office and defense attorneys must be ready to try any one of 80 or more cases at any given time.

Moreover, all the victims and witnesses must be subpoenaed and be ready to testify, in the off chance that their case may be called.

That's just nutty. Can you imagine that kind of don't-plan-ahead process being instituted at your workplace? For example, a caterer having to prepare 80 banquets just to cover a handful of functions that week? Think of the wasted food!

Indeed, an Augusta judge may show up for work and be handed a few, or dozens, of cases to sentence that day. He or she hasn't studied the cases, and may not know the reasons behind other judges' previous rulings in any particular case. What kind of system is that?

Under the system used in every other circuit in Georgia - which the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the Augusta circuit must now use - cases are assigned to particular judges from the start. That way, they'll at least know something about them; and they'll be able to schedule them for hearings and trials in a rational way, one that doesn't drive victims as crazy and make them wish they'd never brought the case to begin with.

And it will end the cynical process of judge shopping. Under the current system, if a case lands on a hanging judge's desk, for example, a defense attorney can develop a cold and get a continuance and hope that next time the case lands on the desk of a more lenient judge.

Sandy Hodson, courts reporter for The Chronicle, has drawn attention to this issue for nearly a decade. We've never figured out why the current decades-old system was ever put in use in the first place. It's been a nightmare, and a miscarriage of justice.

Now we will be watching to make certain the Supreme Court's order is implemented swiftly and surely. Justice delayed is justice denied.

"A much higher quality of justice," District Attorney Danny Craig predicts for the new system. "Greater efficiency, fewer errors in rulings by the court and greater consistency in sentencing.

"Witnesses will only be served with subpoenas once; the attorneys will only prepare for trial once."

Craig also may save money, and a few stress-related maladies, among his staff, and be able to keep good people longer, since his assistant district attorneys will have a better idea of which trials they have to prepare for.

How did the badly needed change happen? One man: Judge Duncan Wheale.

Judge Wheale, unable to change the system from within, appealed for help from the state Supreme Court in a plaintive April 27 letter. He outlined the injustices and inefficiencies in Augusta's current system - and argued, brilliantly, that the local system was contrary to plainly stated rules set out by the high court.

It was as open-and-shut a case as the state Supreme Court may ever have, considering how quickly it responded in Wheale's favor.

Every victim and witness in this district, as well as our overburdened prosecutors, owes Judge Wheale a debt of thanks.


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