Article Comment 

Log jam of cases nothing new for circuit courts

 

Kristin Mamrack

 

 

While the majority of cases involve various drug charges and property crimes, judges with the 14th Judicial District are set to preside over trials on aggravated assault, felony DUI, armed robbery, kidnapping and various sex crimes as the July term of Circuit Court begins this week in Oktibbeha County. 

 

Cases scheduled for trial include six cases of aggravated assault, nine cases of armed robbery, seven cases of third-offense DUI, one rape case, three cases of statutory rape, two fondling cases, one case of sexual battery, one case of kidnapping and one case of possession of child pornography. 

 

But not all cases scheduled for trial end up going to trial. 

 

For example, Rodriguez Gandy was scheduled to go to trial Monday on charges of three counts of armed robbery. 

 

But Gandy pleaded guilty Monday and was sentenced to serve 15 years in the Mississippi Department of Corrections on one count and 10 years in MDOC on another. (A third count was retired in exchange for the plea.) 

 

A Columbus attorney and public defender, Carrie Jourdan explained why more cases aren't tried each term. 

 

"A lot of defendants, particularly when faced with prison sentences, will not plead guilty until a jury is impaneled," she said. "Many criminal defendants, when confronted with a jury panel, they will actually plead. That's the number one reason. 

 

"A lot more is being done than I think the system is given credit for," she continued. "Most (cases) are tried within a year. If you compare that with other districts in the country, that's pretty amazing." 

 

"First, it's important to remember that not every case is going to trial," said Donna Smith, a Columbus attorney who also heads the Lowndes County Public Defender's Office. "About 85- to 90-percent of all criminal cases eventually plead guilty. It's the 'eventually' that bogs down the system. Defendants seem to believe they have a right to a continuance, but there is no such right. However, that being said, they are masters of knowing how to get their cases continued. So, they work the system to find circumstances where they can get a continuance. Some do it simply by walking out of the courthouse, when they are set for trial. It does get the case continued, but when they are detained again, they will remain in jail, until the case is disposed of by trial or entry of a guilty plea. 

 

Each judge has about 30 cases per day on his docket and each can only try one case at a time," she added. "If a case is scheduled for trial on a Monday, a petit jury might be picked by mid-afternoon or later, depending on how long it takes to qualify the venire panel, and select a grand jury in some weeks. That means that even a case which is only going to take a day from jury selection to the jury beginning deliberations will take at least two days. The judge handling it has just left another 59 cases on his docket, untried." 

 

Challenges associated with ensuring adequate representation for defendants unable to pay for legal services -- such as locating witnesses and obtaining expert witnesses to testify --often lead to delays in getting cases ready for trial. 

 

"We do have a large indigent population," Jourdan said. "And we have a poorer community. Funding is an issue. We're dealing with poor resources, so it takes time." 

 

"In any event, almost all of us -- district attorneys and public defenders -- are preparing for multiple trials on many court days," Smith said. "There are witnesses who don't show up, officers who are on vacation and all sorts of other reasons why cases aren't tried when they are set.  

 

"Also, the judges are setting civil cases for trial during the term," she continued. "Although this is normal and lawful, it certainly backs up the criminal judicial system. Most of the civil cases take a week or more to try, so that time spent trying a civil case is simply lost for the criminal matters on the judge's docket. Finally, along those same lines, capital murder cases are being docketed during the term, also. A capital case can take as long or longer than a civil trial, and, again, that judge is unavailable during the trial." 

 

"The number one thing is people plead and people don't get to see that," Jourdan concluded. "And attorneys can only get ready for so many trials and do a decent job. Everybody is working very hard. People don't realize the number of cases we're disposing of. It's a lot more than people understand and the docket moves much quicker (than people realize)."

 

 

 

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