Spencer Merriweather III (Photo: QCity Metro)

Faced with a backlog of cases because of Covid-19 restrictions, the Mecklenburg County district attorney on Wednesday announced a series of internal changes designed to speed up criminal prosecutions.

Jury trials in North Carolina resumed this week for the first time since March 13, when the first cases of Covid-19 began to raise health concerns. Now after that eight-month shutdown, about 700 criminal defendants in Mecklenburg County are awaiting trial in Superior Court. That total includes more than 100 people charged in homicides and about 150 defendants accused of other violent crimes.

To address that backlog, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer B. Merriweather III announced two changes:

  • Two prosecution teams will be combined into a single “felony crimes team” that will focus on drug trafficking, property crimes, drug crimes that involve violence and weapons, and general felonies.
  • Drug cases that are limited to simple possession will be referred to recovery agencies and other service providers. 

Without those changes, Merriweather said, some defendants accused of violent crimes would not get their day in court for at least three years — and even longer for some accused of homicide.

[Also read: How Covid-19 has upended criminal prosecutions in Mecklenburg County]

“That is unacceptable for victims, and it is unacceptable for the entire community,” Merriweather said in a statement. “Today marks the beginning of a new path forward.”

Merriweather said his office would implement the plan by February 2021.

By removing minor drug offenses from criminal courts to focus on violent crimes, he said, “we can get help for those who need help and stop those who need to be stopped.”

As the most populous jurisdiction in North Carolina, Mecklenburg County has the highest criminal case volume. Merriweather said his office has worked to expedite cases, adding that, even under normal circumstances, the state allocates a maximum of only three Superior Court trial courtrooms each week in Mecklenburg County.

Even with the resumption of jury trials, Merriweather said public health demands and social-distancing requirements will likely limit trial capacity to a single courtroom each week for the foreseeable future.

So far this year, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has investigated 104 illegal homicides, which is three short of 2019’s total.

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Jonathan is a former QCity Metro reporter who covered Charlotte neighborhoods north of uptown. He also reported on education, public safety and health.

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