300 Cases Thrown out Mass Dismissal Called `Mere Housekeeping'

Article excerpt

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

victims.

Thrown out were cases ranging from cruelty to children to child

molestation, simple theft to armed robbery and simple battery to

attempted murder.

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

workload.

"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

doubled.

"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

said.

"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. …

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