The re-election year for Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray will be a busy one for his prosecutors who handle murders.
At a Monday press conference, Murray announced that his office plans to try almost twice as many homicide cases – 26 in all – during 2014.
The district attorney said he has received the go-ahead to get more courtrooms and judges to hold the trials. Meanwhile, he said his office will come up with the extra prosecutors needed by pairing members of his homicide team with veteran assistant DAs now focusing on other crimes.
Those moves follow steps the chief prosecutor took when he entered office to expand his homicide staff and work more closely with police to get cases ready for trial.
Murray, who will seek a second term this year, said he hopes the changes will quicken the course of justice – “justice for the defendant, for the victim and the victim’s family, and justice for the community, which obviously deserves our best efforts.”
In a 2013 article that appeared in NC Police Watch, Kevin Tully, head of Mecklenburg’s public defender’s office, spoke out against treating the criminal justice system “as if it’s some kind of a business model,” pushing “X number of widgets through in an orderly and timely fashion.”
Monday, he said residents should question whether Murray’s emphasis on reducing the murder backlog is the best use of his resources and makes the community safer.
“As opposed to being tough on crime, are we being smart on crime?” Tully asked.
Murder rates around the country and in Mecklenburg County continue to be at historic lows, with 58 homicides investigated by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police in 2013. Yet the county’s backlog of pending homicide cases remains stubbornly high.
When Murray came into office three years ago, he said he inherited 162 active murder cases. He added a homicide prosecutor and initiated a program where his staff meets regularly with police to discuss the handling of cases. He and homicide chief Bill Stetzer have a standing goal to cull the backlog to 100.
Yet the number of backlogged cases remains at 117, despite that in 2013 Murray says his office tried more murder cases – 14, compared to an average of about nine a year by his predecessor – and disposed of 99 cases overall, up from the previous administration’s average of 62, Murray said.
The oldest case: the 2005 murder charge against Michael Sherrill, who is already on death row for a 2009 murder and rape conviction in Mecklenburg County. Both his current and previous murder cases date back to 1984 killings.
This year, Murray says his office will have 30 cases to fill the 26 trial slots – allowing the office to have backups ready should a scheduled trial be delayed or the defendant agrees to plead guilty.
Once the backlog is reduced, Murray said he could reallocate his staff to other violent crimes. In particular he named sexual crimes and sexual crimes against children.
Asked about balancing efficiency and justice, public defender Tully said murder cases take time “to properly prepare.” More cases going to trial instead of plea bargains can add to the backlog problem while raising the cost to taxpayers for indigent defense, he said.
“If we ever reach the point that we feel that there’s an interest in going fast instead of doing things correctly, we will raise that as an objection in court.”
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