Steelman Says Aim In Criminal Court Is To "Get It Right"

Monday, November 22, 2010
Judge Barry Steelman
Judge Barry Steelman
- photo by Wes Schultz

Judge Barry Steelman told the Pachyderm Club on Monday that his Criminal Court has been criticized by the Grand Jury for a backlog of cases, but he said speed is not the main focus of the court.

Judge Steelman said, "We try to expedite our dockets, but we want to get it done right rather than doing it quick."

He added, "It is very, very important when a person's liberty is at stake that we get it right."

And he told the group, "Because of the caseload and the lack of personnel, it makes it very difficult for the courts to operate as trial courts. Therefore, most cases are pled out of necessity in order to keep the docket moving."

Judge Steelman said there are about 1,500 cases pending in each of the three divisions of Criminal Court.

He said with just three prosecutors per court, each has about 500 cases to deal with.

One idea to deal with the backlog is to add a fourth court, but he said it might be better just to bring in additional prosecutors and public defenders "because it takes lawyers to resolve cases."

The speaker said when a prosecutor is involved in a trial that can take months to prepare for, then he is not able to focus full attention on the 499 other cases he has.

He said cases also stay in General Sessions Court for as long as 120 days before they go the Grand Jury.

He said on one particular docket in September, on average it took about five months to get a case through the Grand Jury. He said one case took a year and two months to get a Grand Jury hearing.

Judge Steelman said an examination of the report of the Regular Grand Jury for August 2010 states the panel heard 648 cases in 15 days. He said, "It appears then the Grand Jury spent an average 12 minutes per case." He said it is not a criticism of the Grand Jury, but he said it is difficult to make a determination about the validity of a case in that time period. He said it also shows the need the Grand Jury has to also move the docket.

He said the lower courts and the Grand Jury deal with "probable cause," but Criminal Court must find beyond a reasonable doubt.

He said about 95 percent of the cases are handled by pleas. He said the pleas are not lenient, noting "a lot of those deals I would not be willing to take."

The judge said processing of evidence often holds up trials, saying it can take a year and two months to get fingerprint evidence back.

He said Criminal Court is a court of record. "Everything that is done is written down and a transcript is available for review. Our doors are always open to the public."

He cited four differences between Criminal Court and the Grand Jury, saying the Grand Jury typically only hears from the prosecution side, the Grand Jury process is not subject to the same strict rules of evidence in Criminal Court, in Criminal Court the defendant has certain rights including confronting witnesses against them, and he said there is a higher burden of proof at Criminal Court.

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