FOLKSTON -- On Feb. 15, prosecutors walked into the Charlton
County Courthouse and stamped "dismissed" on more than 300
warrants filed by police officers, sheriff's deputies and crime
Thrown out were cases ranging from cruelty to children to child
molestation, simple theft to armed robbery and simple battery to
Prosecutors say the mass dismissal was "mere housekeeping."
But the reasons behind the backlog, which included cases dating
back to 1989, and subsequent dismissals show a long-standing
economic and logistical problem for people seeking justice in
this rural Southeast Georgia county.
Prosecutors say the justice system is "archaic." Law
enforcement officers say a lack of money and manpower means they
cannot follow up all cases; the county lacks the resources to
pay for assistance -- like a victim advocate -- and state
lawmakers have scheduled only one week a year for criminal
trials in Charlton County.
In a state where popular rhetoric hammers away at punishing
criminals and protecting victims' rights, the reality is there
are no new resources to deal with a surge in crime.
Charlton County Sheriff Dobie Conner said he was stunned when
he heard about the dismissals -- four months after the fact.
"People were asking me about it. I had no idea what they were
talking about," Conner said.
The sheriff said that when prosecutors do a mass dismissal, his
office first should be allowed to review the cases to determine
if deputies still are investigating.
"It could have been that they dismissed some of the cases we
are still looking into," the sheriff said.
Conner wasn't the only person not notified. Several people
named as victims on the arrest warrants said they weren't told
anything about their cases, including the dismissals.
Assistant District Attorney George Barnhill defended the
dismissals, saying his office has to rely on evidence it
receives from law enforcement agencies. He said many cases
surpassed statutes of limitations.
But Barnhill also said economic concerns limit his office's
"I've been butting my head against this for years," he said.
"This is an archaic system."
BIG CRIME, SMALL BUDGET
When Barnhill joined the District Attorney's Office in 1983,
there were three assistant district attorneys. Today there are
five -- still only one part-time in Charlton County -- but the
number of cases in his office's six-county circuit has more than
"When I started there were three judges," Barnhill said. "There
are still three judges."
And the Charlton County Sheriff's Department, which had only
one detective 13 years ago, still has only one detective, he
"It's not just in Charlton County," Barnhill said. "It's in
every rural county in South Georgia. There's been a big increase
in crime, and there's not been a big increase in detectives,
judges or prosecutors. If you mention increasing government
spending on anything, it falls on deaf ears."
Add to that a system that allows anyone to come in to a
magistrate judge's office and take out a warrant, and you end up
with a logjam, officials said.
Though an average of 600 arrest warrants are filed each year in
Charlton County -- there were more than 700 in 1995 --
prosecutors have only one week a year scheduled for criminal
court trials. Another week is set aside for civil trials.
Barnhill said state lawmakers set the number of court weeks. …