Hundreds of local legal cases are taking several years to go to court.
“Older cases become weaker cases,” said Spencer Merriweather, Mecklenburg County district attorney. “I cannot let that happen.”
9 Investigates what the backlog means for victims desperate for justice and the accused waiting for their day in court.
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Some have waited more than three years for a trial.
The court backlog affects the accused and families whose loved ones fell victim to crimes.
Linda Springs has spent the last 3 ½ years without her daughter Kendal Crank.
“I miss her dearly,” Springs told Channel 9. “She was a good person. She was a kind person. She was a happy person. She was a person.”
Crank was driving to nursing school in 2019 when she was caught in a crossfire.
Springs rushed to the scene on North Tryon Street only to find out her child was dead.
“And everything just collapsed,” Springs said. “My legs gave in. I don’t remember after that.”
Police arrested three men the next day who are still awaiting trial three years later.
The three suspects arrested in Crank’s death will be tried by the state attorney general’s office because during the shooting, the car of an assistant district attorney in Mecklenburg County was also hit by a bullet.
The assistant district attorney was driving at the time but was not hurt.
Springs said she was told the first trial won’t start until April 2023.
Merriweather knows it’s taking too long to close too many cases.
“It’s a delay of justice for everybody,” Merriweather said.
He said it also weighs heavily on his team.
“To sit across from someone and tell them, knowing they’ve been made more vulnerable by crime committed against them, and tell them it’s going to be years before someone is held accountable for that -- that’s unjust to them,” Merriweather said. “It’s unjust to the community at large.”
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden said it’s also unjust to those behind bars who are in jail for years before being tried for their crimes.
“It’s a strain on them just being incarcerated inside a facility,” McFadden said. “But the waiting for a court date and waiting to go to trial is very difficult.”
Channel 9 obtained records from the sheriff’s office showing the 50 suspects who’ve spent the longest time waiting in the Mecklenburg County Jail have spent between 3 1/2 to over six years waiting for their day in court.
Some cases have special circumstances involving mental health, but many do not.
“Some people are what we classify as deteriorating,” McFadden said. “They wait and it’s very hard mentally on them.”
Merriweather said the courts were already facing years of a backlog before COVID-19.
“And COVID has certainly made those problems even worse,” Merriweather said.
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Staffing is one problem.
Merriweather currently has nine openings for prosecutors and said the 84 he does have on staff is nowhere near enough.
His prosecutors are trying more cases at once, prioritizing violent crimes and offering plea deals when warranted.
Merriweather said those deals are never offered just because of the backlog. He said the longer it takes to try a case, the more difficult it is to get a conviction.
“I cannot let our cases get to the point of having someone escape all accountability, because cases have gotten old and witnesses can’t be found,” he said. “Cases have gotten old, and memories are lost.”
That is a difficult conversation to have with victims of crime.
There is not one solution and it will take time to catch up.
“I know it will take years,” Merriweather said. “And that is a candid answer. Not one that makes people feel especially good.”