Mecklenburg County’s top prosecutor said it will take years for the state court system to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thousands of defendants are awaiting trial after courts ground to a halt more than a year ago, District Attorney Spencer Merriweather told the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum.
Merriweather said a lack of resources and lost time will cause many cases — including some homicide trials — to be delayed for years.
“This is the impact that Covid has had on our justice system, and like I said, it’s going to take a lot of resources to try and dig out from under that,” he said.
As the pandemic took hold in North Carolina, jury trials were suspended from March 2020 to November 2020. They resumed briefly but were paused again in December. Then as the number of Covid cases began to decline and restrictions were lifted, the state court reconvened jury trials in March 2021.
By the numbers
Currently, Merriweather said, his office faces a backlog of 105 homicide cases and 175 violent crime cases, which include attempted murder, robberies and felony assault. In addition, he said, trials must be scheduled for 120 special victims cases, which include child abuse, rape and felony domestic violence.
There’s also over 100 drug cases, mainly for trafficking and drug sales, 130 habitual felon cases, 100 property cases and almost 3,000 driving-while-impaired cases that have yet to be heard by the court.
In an effort to clear the backlog of cases, Merriweather said, his office has begun referring people with simple drug-possession charges to service providers outside of the court system, which has led to a 50% increase in the number of prosecutors focusing on violent crime.
Even with that pivot, Merriweather said, his office has conducted roughly 10 jury trials since March 2020.
Aside from the Covid delays, Merriweather said the slow pace is due to Mecklenburg County having only three courtrooms for criminal cases.
“It’s bad for everybody. We should have twice the number of courtrooms,” he said.
Mecklenburg vs state
Merriweather said state government’s response to Mecklenburg County’s needs has been “abysmal” — prior to and during the pandemic.
Although the county’s population has grown by 20% percent the past 10 years and has seen a rise in violent crime, the state’s allocation for his office has not kept pace, Merriweather said.
“In the past decade, we’ve had a single increase of one prosecutor and no victim/witness assistants,” he said.
Also exacerbating workloads, he said, are new state laws like the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and the Raise The Age law, which he said, have gone unfunded.
“It is a shame, a literal shame, that you would create an act like this and wouldn’t fund it a lick,” he said. “You wouldn’t put one red nickel into funding it in the largest jurisdiction in this state. And that has been our reality that has increased our demand.”
Despite the challenges, Merriweather said there have been some bright spots in the past year, including the opening of the county’s Survivor Resource Center in February for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
He’s also upbeat about the continued planning of The Umbrella Center Family Justice Center for survivors of abuse and violence.
Merriweather said these services are especially urgent for children who experience violence, noting that violent offenders often are victims of adverse childhood experiences.
“It’s about building a sense of resiliency in them, so it does not manifest itself 20 years from now,” he said. “If someone had intervened with those adults (offenders) at an early stage, we could be a safer and more whole community. It’s so critical and so important.”