Justice delayed for thousands as N.C. courts work to clear backlog

In-person court still cancelled in Mecklenburg County as surroundings counties resume court
Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 6:25 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 11, 2021 at 6:29 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte attorney Mark Jetton was supposed to be in court last week representing a client who was charged with misdemeanors related to a domestic incident in 2019.

Jetton said his client lost their job as a pharmacist as a result of the charges. The case was originally scheduled for court last week. Now it’s been pushed back until May 2022.

Until the case goes to Trial, Jetton said, his client won’t have a chance to clear his name and find work as a pharmacist again.

The situation is not a unique one.

Tens-of-thousands of defendants across North Carolina are awaiting their day in court. Which also means equal numbers of victims and family members waiting, too.

The problem is being felt across the state but is particularly acute in Mecklenburg County, where court officials have still not resumed holding in-person court in nearly any type of case.

“The other counties that around Mecklenburg County, their court system seems to be moving at a much quicker pace,” Jetton said.

“Right now, in Mecklenburg County, we’re just not doing cases in court.”

Courts were largely shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic through much of last year and into early 2021.

Civil cases, though, could conduct hearings and other pre-trial business virtually. But criminal cases are mostly required to be heard in-person, with few exceptions.

As a result, district attorneys and criminal defense lawyers are juggling to dig out from the year-long backlog while continuing to process new cases, too.

“Crime didn’t stop and officers didn’t stop doing their jobs. People didn’t stop robbing each other. Drug dealers didn’t stop selling drugs,” Union County District Attorney Trey Robison said.

“All these cases are kind of being put into the system while on the other end of the system. We’re struggling to manage the case.”

Robison said he and his staff have had to get creative with scheduling cases, prioritizing cases with the biggest impact to the community, including murders and other violent offenses.

That means other cases will have to wait.

In Cleveland and Lincoln Counties, which are one Superior Court district, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Don Bridges emailed defense attorneys in late April to address the as of then still-growing backlog.

Bridges said he was working with his trial court coordinator and District Attorney Mike Miller to add more court sessions for jury trials.

“One obvious impact of the pandemic during the past year has been a severe restriction on jury trials, resulting in a backlog of cases that will require more trial settings during allocated weeks of Superior Court,” he said.

Robison, the Union County DA, said a major limiting factor in his ability to clear more cases is a lack of courtroom spaces and additional judges to hear cases.

“What we need is court and part of the problem with the courts is, you know, under COVID restrictions, you can only have a certain number of people in the courtroom at any given time,” Robison said.

Jetton, the Charlotte lawyer, said he’s seen things starting to flow again in other counties outside of Mecklenburg. But, here, the only cases being heard in-person right now are DWI’s, he said.

And it doesn’t look like movement is going to start any time soon.

“One of the most frustrating things, it seems from my perspective, is that there’s just not much information be released, especially here in Mecklenburg County,” Jetton said.

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