D.A. getting heat over slow pace of court cases

By on February 14, 2012

District Attorney Frank Parrish, the subject of at least a half-dozen affidavits petitioning for his suspension or removal, was the focus late last year of two meetings of court clerks and sheriffs about the pace of cases moving through the court system.

Some of the concerns brought up in the meetings broadly parallel specific allegations in the recently filed affidavits, which contend that the District Attorney’s office ignored or acted too slowly on cases and other filings.

One of the petitions was from a police officer involved in a legal action over a personnel grievance with Kill Devil Hills. Before filing suit against the town, he had contacted Parrish, saying his complaints warranted the removal of the police chief.

Correspondence and other documents show that on Nov. 28, 2011, a local sheriff e-mailed an invitation to the First Judicial District’s seven Superior Court clerks and sheriffs. The meeting was attended by all of the sheriffs and clerks as well as Superior Court judges J.C. Cole and Jerry Tillett.

According to the documents, the main concern was a backlog of cases, much of which was attributed to slow response from the District Attorney’s office.

A similar meeting at the District Court level in October was attended by all seven Superior Court clerks and sheriffs. The purpose of that meeting was to conduct “an informal discussion of ways cases might be more expeditiously heard.”

Shortly after the meeting, one document reveals an attendee saying “after that meeting I received a call from Frank Parrish about the meeting and I informed him of the problems we were having with court cases.”

In a letter, Parrish outlined changes he hoped would result in “far better service to the public and your agency.”

One was the assignment of Assistant District Attorney Nancy Lamb as “Chief Assistant District Attorney,” making one of her duties “quality control” and noting she will only continue to “try cases as necessary.”

Parrish, in an interview, said that many District Attorneys have assistants that serve in such a capacity.

“It’s something I probably should have done a while ago,” he said.

Another document that was released after the meeting notes in October, 2006, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge J. Richard Parker also held a meeting with Parrish and all seven district clerks and sheriffs, covering the same problems and stating several months later that no improvements were forthcoming.

A list of pending court cases filed in two small counties underscores the problem. In one, five cases have been pending for time periods ranging from 270 to almost 1,600 days. The charges in those cases include indecent liberties, child abuse, first degree murder and concealed weapons charges.

In the other county, six pending cases have been languishing over 450 days with one case 695 days old. The case load for that county totals 11 pages.

In one county, only 12 cases were on the calendar and none of them were brought to trial in the recent term.

One sheriff who did not want to be named said such meetings occur from time to time between judges, sheriffs, clerks and municipal police chiefs. He recited the old saying that the wheels of justice turn slowly slow, and also pointed out other problem areas that slow trials down, such as an overwhelmed crime lab in Raleigh that handles evidence for small jurisdictions.

Parrish, who oversees 11 assistant district attorneys in seven counties, said he did not attend the meetings and could not address specific concerns that might have been discussed about his office.

But besides delays in processing forensic evidence, Parrish said, other factors contribute to backlogs. One case, for example, might take up an entire weeklong trial session.

Also, he said, the law requires some sessions to be dedicated to administrative matters such as motions, bail and pleas, so the system is limited by time. In Dare County, Superior Court sessions are once a month. Every other month is an administrative session, where dozens of defendants, families and lawyers pack the courtroom.

“The reasons are as multiplicitous as humanity,” he said.

Overall, Parrish said, the judicial system receives about 3 percent of the state’s budget.

Because they are pending, Parrish said he could not comment on petitions filed in Pasquotank County by attorney Kathryn Fagan on behalf of clients who allege problems with his office. In most of them, complainants allege a lack of communication from the D.A.’s office or a lack of action in investigating and responding to ongoing cases and other filings.

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