‘We need help.’ Governor, Democrats say NC courts need money to prosecute gun crimes

Saying a recent Charlotte Observer investigation raised “troubling issues,” N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper contended the state courts need more funding to successfully prosecute gun criminals.

“I think there is a need for more prosecutors and judges, particularly in our urban areas,” the Democratic governor told the Observer Tuesday. “...There is no question that we need more to handle the workload.”

The Observer’s investigation found that prosecutors in Mecklenburg County have dismissed more than two-thirds of weapons crimes over the past five years, and that many of the suspects were later arrested again, sometimes for murder.

Statewide, prosecutors dismissed about half of all gun charges during that period.

Gov. Roy Cooper N.C. Governor's office

A shortage of court resources has contributed to the high dismissal rate, former prosecutors said.

Democratic lawmakers argued that the legislature has failed to provide adequate funding to the courts in the state’s largest urban counties. That, they said, has left the courts overwhelmed and unable to effectively process thousands of criminal cases.

“This is an urban problem,” Rep. Nasif Majeed, a Mecklenburg Democrat, said on the House floor Oct. 2 after highlighting some of the Observer’s findings. “I want you to understand that we are in crisis mode, and we need help.”

Some Republicans also said the courts need more resources.

But Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, said he believes court funding has little to do with Mecklenburg’s high dismissal rate.

“Mecklenburg County has turned very far left,” said Britt, who chairs the Senate’s judiciary committee and its committee on justice and public safety appropriations. “...I can only assume that the DA has the same rationale in the back of his mind that this is a liberal haven and this is the way I’m going to choose to prosecute crime. And that’s why you’re seeing all the dismissals. Not because of the lack of funding.”

Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather, a Democrat, disputes that. He said his office dismisses cases only when there is insufficient evidence for a conviction. And he noted that the county’s previous DA – Andrew Murray, who ran the office for most of the period studied by the Observer – is a Republican.

“My office – and the county I represent – are populated by people across the political spectrum,” Merriweather wrote in a statement to the Observer. “Our commitment to securing justice for victims and to following the law with complete fidelity is not – and has never been – partisan.”

Sen. Danny Britt N.C. General Assembly

Some right-leaning counties also have high dismissal rates. Six of the 10 N.C. counties with the highest dismissal rates are represented by Republicans in the state senate, data show.

Limited funding, hefty caseloads

From 2014 through 2018, Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed 68 percent of weapons charges, a higher rate than any other urban county in North Carolina, the Observer’s investigation found.

Mecklenburg’s high dismissal rate means that defendants who commit crimes here have a greater chance of avoiding punishment than in other N.C. counties. Suspects who get away with crimes often move on to worse offenses, including murder, experts say.

Since 2015, more than half of the roughly 300 people charged with murder in Mecklenburg had prior weapons charges — and most of those charges were dismissed, the Observer found.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney told the Observer that he rarely sees homicide suspects with clean records.

CMDP Chief Kerr Putney

He said people “laugh at Mecklenburg” because defendants here aren’t afraid of being convicted.

“Mainly because they fear other areas are going to hold them more accountable,” Putney said. “It’s just the truth.”

Former prosecutors told the Observer they had little choice but to plea bargain or dismiss most charges. That’s because prosecutors shoulder heavy caseloads and operate in a state-funded court system that is so overburdened that less than 1 percent of felony cases go to trial.

Mecklenburg has 86 prosecutors, fewer than almost any county its size nationwide, the Observer found. A county with Mecklenburg’s population — 1.1 million people — ought to have at least 120 prosecutors, according to David Labahn, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

North Carolina spent less per resident on its courts than any other state-funded system, according to data collected by the National Center for State Courts in 2012, the most recent available.

In North Carolina, the hefty caseloads and limited resources result in large backlogs. On average, it takes state prosecutors about 15 months to resolve weapons felonies, the Observer found.

It often becomes harder for prosecutors to win convictions when cases are repeatedly postponed, particularly when key witnesses disappear or become unwilling to testify.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather says his prosecutors make decisions based on the available evidence. But he and others say cases are often hampered by poor evidence and by witnesses who can’t be found, can’t be trusted or refuse to testify. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Merriweather said that while decisions about whether to prosecute are based on law and evidence, more funding could help lower the county’s dismissal rate. Money for community prosecutors, for instance, could develop relationships between the DA’s office and high-crime neighborhoods and increase cooperation among victims and witnesses.

“If we were better resourced, it could likely result in some better outcomes,” Merriweather said while discussing the Observer’s investigation on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks on Oct. 8.

‘Setting ourselves up for failure’

In interviews with the Observer, more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers said that Mecklenburg and other large urban counties need more court resources.

“It is very, very clear that the central problem is the underfunding of the judicial system,” said Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Mecklenburg Democrat.

Democrats also say that two new state laws — one that expands victims’ rights and another that raises the age at which teenagers can be prosecuted as adults for most crimes — will put additional strain on an already overtaxed court system.

The legislature recently approved funding for additional personnel, including 16 prosecutors and seven judges, to help some counties implement the new “Raise the Age” law.

Rep. Darren Jackson N.C. General Assembly

But during the Oct. 2 debate on the House Floor, several urban lawmakers complained that none of the additional positions were going to the state’s two largest counties — Mecklenburg and Wake.

“We are setting ourselves up for failure without the resources,” Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat told fellow lawmakers during the debate. “We are setting it up to be a disaster for our court system.”

Last year, the North Carolina courts received about $550 million, or about 2 percent of the state budget. Democratic lawmakers argue that the courts need far more.

“The DAs are out there in public view and are taking the rap for our failure to fund the court system properly,” said Rep. Joe John, a Wake County Democrat who previously worked as a prosecutor and as a judge. “...They are good, hard-working capable people who are trying to do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. My suggestion is they need a few more cards.”

Rep. Joe John N.C. General Assembly

But Republicans control the General Assembly. And several Republican lawmakers asserted that the legislature has responded to the needs of the courts. Senate leader Phil Berger said that since 2017, the budget for the state courts has grown 15 percent.

“That’s well above the overall growth in spending, which means that the court system is getting a larger piece of the pie,” Berger wrote in a statement to the Observer.

Rep. Allen McNeill, who leads the House budget-writing committee for justice and public safety, agreed.

“I believe we have made great improvement in the last 6-8 years in providing the resources needed by the Courts,” the Randolph County Republican wrote in an email to the Observer.

Several Republican also argued that Mecklenburg’s courts have gotten more than their fair share of resources. They noted that other urban counties with far less funding have found a way to dismiss a smaller percentage of cases.

House speaker Tim Moore N.C. General Assembly

“North Carolina’s dramatic increase in public safety funding since 2012, combined with the strong staffing levels in the Mecklenburg court system … demonstrate that funding is not the primary issue or solution to the concerns raised in the Charlotte Observer’s investigation,” House Speaker Tim Moore wrote in a statement to the Observer.

Republican leaders noted that, based on the formula used by the state Administrative Office of the Courts, Mecklenburg has 40 percent more prosecutors than it needs. But Democrats contend the formula does not take into account the special needs of large urban counties. And they point out that the extra prosecutors in Mecklenburg are funded by local governments, not by the state.

But some Republican leaders appeared to agree with the Democrats on this much: The state’s court system needs more funding.

“We’re always looking at investing more in the court system and investing more in having a court system that functions efficiently and functions effectively,” said Britt, the Senate judiciary committee chairman.

‘Dereliction of duty’

The state fully funds 60 of Mecklenburg’s 86 prosecutors. Mecklenburg County provides money for 20 prosecutors, while the city of Charlotte pays for two more. The funding for the four remaining prosecutors is shared by the state, county and city.

Several Mecklenburg commissioners, including commissioners chair George Dunlap, Pat Cotham and Vilma Leake, said they’d be open to providing more money for prosecutors if the legislature refuses to provide it.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham Mecklenburg County

Said Cotham: “The DAs are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. But we’ve got people walking around who should be in jail. And they just commit more crimes.”

Others questioned why the state legislature wasn’t doing more.

“I look at it as a dereliction of duty from our state representatives,” said commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell. “I think there is so much that Mecklenburg County ends up absorbing that the state should be doing. Frankly, it’s really shocking to me.”

Efforts to beef up background checks

Cooper — along with some Democratic lawmakers — said stronger efforts to keep guns out of the wrong hands could also help.

“I believe the vast majority of people want to see stronger background checks, and we’re going to continue pushing this legislature to do it,” he said. “I think the people are going to stand up and demand it. Preventing guns from getting into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them should be a priority.”

One bill proposed in the House this year would require people who buy rifles to get permits and wait for 72 hours before taking the gun home. Another would make it a crime to leave guns in unattended cars unless the vehicle is locked and the firearm is properly secured. A third would require owners to notify law enforcement if a gun is lost or stolen.

All three of the bills remain stuck in committee, where they’re expected to die.

Staff writers Anna Douglas and Joe Marusak contributed.