DOBSON — “This whole thing has dragged on for so long. It’s almost like an open wound,” Bernie Puckett said in June, referring to the case against those accused of killing his friend, Donald Arnder, in 2012.
With the twelfth highest number of felony cases pending in Superior Court for more than three years, there may be some truth to the feeling that justice moves especially slow in Surry County.
District Attorney Ricky Bowman doesn’t disagree that the county’s pile of older cases needs attention.
In November 2015, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) sent a list of pending cases to Bowman and other District Attorneys in the state.
“It was at that time I began to address the issue of older cases,” and began meeting with his staff of assistant district attorneys to sort things out.
“We went through every case we had,” he said, identifying the cause of the delay as well discussing possible resolutions to the cases.
In an interview Thursday, the district attorney shared some of those reasons and administration changes made within the office that are expected to get things moving.
However, a thick case file sitting on his desk served as a reminder that faster doesn’t always equal better.
The victim in the case, a child allegedly assaulted by an adult, didn’t want to testify.
Instead of dismissing the charge, Bowman held it open, letting time, in this case, work its magic.
After several years, changing external factors have now made a resolution possible.
“If I can save a child from being revictimized (on the stand) I will do it,” Bowman said. “We’re putting the child’s interests and community safety first.”
Bowman explained that the case’s unique combination of factors, including the fact that the defendant had no prior accusations or convictions, made holding it open the right choice, as it is for many cases — but not all.
“You can’t use a cookie cutter,” he said. “I’ve never thought court should be an assembly line or like a fast food drive-in. Cases should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, an individual basis, each according to facts of the case, in the most appropriate and efficient way possible.”
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-90, who chairs the North Carolina Courts Commission non-standing committee in the General Assembly, said during a March interview that some District Attorneys in the state are addressing their backlog by simply dismissing charges on older cases.
“I’d rather do it right than do it quick,” Bowman said. “I know some DAs are concerned about numbers. I’m concerned about people. If I can save a child from being revictimzed,” without letting an alleged criminal go free, “I will do it. I’m not going to be concerned about statistics.”
That said, other factors do contribute to delays, Bowman said.
A significant backlog of evidence at the State Crime Lab helped slow things down in the courtroom for the past several years.
With increased funding and the addition of a lab in the western area of the state, it’s now processing evidence much faster, “the state lab is doing such an excellent job now,” Bowman said.
Some defendants in drug cases had been assisting state or federal prosecutions, so their own case can’t be disposed until those of the ones they’re assisting.
In other cases, victims or witnesses can’t be found. “We’re holding out, hoping we can find them,” he said, again noting that in other counties, “some might dismiss sooner. Until then, we’re working on something else.”
Other cases may be delayed due to the involvement of federal prosecution or defendants facing charges in several counties.
“Every case that is older there is a valid reason for it,” he said.
Administrative challenges, fixes
Some factors contributing to delays can be controlled.
“I see these things, too,” Bowman said. “I want to fix them.”
The July term of Surry County Superior Court begins Tuesday, with 203 cases on the calendar to be heard during a four-day session.
It’s an exceptionally short week; but even during a two-week session, court time comes at a premium.
Bowman said he worked with Anderson Cromer, who next year will take over as Senior Resident Superior Court Judge, to develop a calendar for 2017 that reflects about six more weeks of court time, which was recently approved by the AOC.
“We’re very excited about getting more court time,” Bowman said.
Staff split between the Surry and Stokes county offices was also identified as problematic. Now, each office will operate independently.
In the Surry County office, a new system for “streamlining” case management has been established.
Instead of each ADA handling their own caseload, all cases will first come through Mike Beal for screening, with Mark Miller and Quentin Harris handling the cases in court.
“It was something I saw a need for,” Bowman said.
“What I hope to be able to do is shorten the time, except for in the most aggravated cases,” he said.
Tim Watson, the ADA charged handling the more serious drug and felony charges, was in high demand in both offices. A six-month murder trial in Stokes County further exacerbated his caseload.
“He has a large number of older cases,” Boman confirmed. “He was stretched beyond belief having to work two counties.”
Watson started working only in the Surry County office earlier this year and placed 34 cases on the May Superior Court Calendar, about 25 of which date from 2013 or prior.
“Each and every prosecutor is taking the steps necessary,” Bowman said. “We’re waiting to see results.”
When members of Arnder’s victimized family recently shared their frustrations with the delays, it was noted that they only became frustrated when they fell out of communication with Bowman’s office.
To that end, Bowman said the hiring of additional victim service coordinators is expected to result in more frequent and better quality contact with victims.
In November 2015, Bowman was given the green light to hire three victim service coordinators through a federal grant that had been awarded to the state.
“I filled those three positions,” he said, noting “we had lost two positions during the budget cuts of the Great Recession and in a small office that can be a big deal.”
Two of the three coordinators hired will work out of the Surry office and one in Stokes.
“Their duties are devoted solely to victims,” Bowman said.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.