Something needs to change in the courts, says Mobile County Commissioner Randall Dueitt.
Dueitt spoke off the cuff at the end of the Mobile County Commissioners’ work session on Thursday, Oct. 7, stating there is an overwhelming amount of individuals being held at the Mobile Metro Jail and not enough trials scheduled to fix the problem. While the courts do not fall under the jurisdiction of the County Commission, Dueitt said he is bringing up the issue because the county is responsible for public safety.
Mobile’s presiding judge has responded to the comments, saying the trial schedule has been misunderstood.
“There are 700 Class-A felonies awaiting trial,” Dueitt said, noting that number includes 26 capital murder cases and 124 murder cases. Another 100 more individuals currently charged with murder are out on bond.
“We have 400 people waiting for trial in the jail — some who have been there for three to five years,” Dueitt continued, adding that first-time offenders may sit in jail longer than they would sit in prison if convicted. “I talked to the sheriff this morning. He said during his tenure as sheriff of Mobile County, he has had the worst population of prisoners he has ever had. I think it shows with the issues we’re having.”
Dueitt speculated the backlog of cases could be in large part due to the bottleneck at the 13th Judicial Circuit Court, which has been attempting to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic through virtual meetings and other protocols.
County attorney Jay Ross noted a lack of jurors is also a factor. He said a recent voir dire saw just 100 individuals show up out of the 800 summoned. Dueitt said rigid COVID-19 rules could be discouraging people from participating or giving them an excuse to not show up.
According to the commissioner, only eight weeks of trials have been scheduled. With eight circuit judges, he said, this would only amount to about 64 trials. He told commissioners, during a normal year, the court will host trials four weeks a month for eight months a year, which would amount to 256 trials using Dueitt’s approach.
“That doesn’t even cover the murder cases waiting to be tried,” Dueitt said.
The commissioner said he is not the only one in the county concerned about the backlog of cases, though he said he would not publicly name any others. He said he has made a few phone calls to other officials in the state and the majority of courts are loosening some COVID-19 restrictions.
Dueitt said the county is doing its part to police, investigate and enforce laws, adding the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office is “willing and ready” to move forward with prosecutions.
“We can’t do that because of the court system,” Dueitt said.
District 2 Commissioner Connie Hudson said the numbers were “shocking to hear.”
“It seems unconstitutional, frankly,” Hudson said, noting the constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.
Dueitt said a speedy trial may be difficult to define with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he noted many of the inmates have been in jail since before the pandemic started last year.
District 1 Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said she hopes someone is speaking about the issue directly with Presiding Judge Michael Youngpeter.
Hudson asked if there needed to be more judges to handle the large caseload.
“We have enough judges,” Dueitt said. “They need to go back to work.”
Sheriff: ‘Let’s double up the trials’
“We’re on the edge of the proverbial cliff,” Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said during a phone interview.
Though jail population numbers are not the highest he’s ever seen, the sheriff said the current situation is the worst he has ever seen, explaining 425 inmates are facing Class-A felony charges with possible penalties of 10 to 99 years in prison.
“They’re so unruly. They don’t have a whole lot to live for,” Cochran said. “They’re dangerous and don’t adhere to discipline. We are dealing with drugs and other contraband.”
The community and crime victims are also affected by the situation, according to the sheriff. Cochran said criminals out on bond have more opportunities to commit more crimes. He also said for victims, “justice delayed is justice denied.” He noted problems can also arise with witnesses, as they can lose memories, move away or even die while waiting to testify.
Cochran said the current situation has developed due to an entire year of not having trials. He said the Alabama Department of Corrections has throttled their intake of convicted individuals as well.
“This is a disaster,” Cochran said.
The sheriff told Lagniappe he and other county officials met with the presiding judge after the commission’s Oct. 7 work session. He said he is holding out hope the trial schedule will be amended and expanded.
“It was distressing to see [the schedule],” Cochran said. “It’s not enough. The courthouse needs to open up and they need to get back to work. Jurors need to be back in the box.”
Cochran said the trial schedule of eight weeks likely wouldn’t outpace the replacement rate of individuals being charged with violent crimes next year.
“Let’s double up the trials because we’re facing a tragedy,” Cochran said.
Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich told Lagniappe her assistants are ready to prosecute larger dockets if they are scheduled to get the backlog of cases reduced. She attributed the problem to COVID-19.
“We will work hard to maximize the resources we have to try as many cases as we can prepare,” Rich wrote in an email. “Our goal is a full complement of trials on every judge’s docket. This is the only way to do away with the growing backlog. We are working every day, in court and out of court, to get cases to trial. However, without a full complement of trial settings, our ability to either negotiate a plea or give a defendant the trial he or she is entitled to is diminished.”
Commissioner Hudson requested Ross, the county attorney, research ways for the commission to assist the courts in helping to address the volume of open cases.
Youngpeter: Trial schedule misunderstood
After being made aware of Dueitt’s comments, 13th Judicial Circuit Court Presiding Judge Michael Youngpeter explained in a letter to Lagniappe the court’s 2022 schedule has been misunderstood. He said the court crafted its schedule designating four primary judges and four non-primary judges to account for the possibility of another resurgence in COVID-19 disrupting juror participation and “wrecking” a full eight-judge schedule. However, he said, non-primary judges will be scheduling cases as normal if enough jurors are reporting.
“It is conceivable that if we have enough jurors to report, all eight of the circuit judges could conduct a jury trial in a week. I am not sure what else could be expected by our bench,” Youngpeter said.
The presiding judge stood behind the efforts of the 13th Circuit Court’s bench, noting the court never closed during the pandemic. He said when the pandemic broke out in March 2020, jury trials were temporarily postponed as Mobile attempted to grapple with how to respond.
Youngpeter said masking and social distancing have been the key tenets of the Mobile court’s mitigation plan. He said this is the case statewide, noting that 21 of 42 circuits maintain their face-covering requirements and distancing restrictions in their courthouses.
But the presiding judge said COVID-19 measures have not created Mobile’s backlog of cases; according to him, the backlog already existed.
On March 3, 2020, at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., the total number of pending criminal cases in the county was 3,334 and the jail population was 1,002. By August 2021, that caseload grew to 3,947 — an increase of more than 600 cases. However, the jail population actually decreased to 956.
Youngpeter said the Constitution’s speedy trial standard would not be a factor in the situation, due to the pandemic.
“To my knowledge, offenders [first time or otherwise] are not sitting in jail longer than any sentence they could receive,” Youngpeter said. “The lawyers are not going to allow that to happen and the criminal defense bar in Mobile — particularly since the institution of the Public Defender’s Office — is very competent.”
The judge said there is no question the court’s biggest challenge over the last 20 months has been conducting jury trials. Youngpeter said Mobile’s courtrooms are small and are confined inside the nine-story Government Plaza building. Mobile City and Mobile County worked together with the courts to offer them the Civic Center arena as an alternative location to assemble jurors and host grand jury proceedings. The judge said this setting has enabled the court to continue hosting jury trials throughout the year, apart from January, February and September, when proceedings were suspended due to significant spikes in COVID-19 cases in the area.
In August, court administrators began tracking trial data from the state’s other large court systems to determine where Mobile stood in comparison. Youngpeter said that information shows the Mobile’s courts are not underperforming.
“It might surprise some to learn that through August of this year, judges in Mobile County had conducted more jury trials than any other circuit in the state during the pandemic,” he said.
Through Aug. 11, the circuit courts’ records show Mobile hosted 41 jury trials in 2021 (25 criminal and 16 civil). For the same period, those records also show Birmingham hosted 33 jury settings and Baldwin County courts held 40. Last year, Mobile’s courts conducted 52 jury trials. Thirty-three of those were hosted pre-pandemic. In 2018 and 2019, the Mobile courts hosted more than 130 trials.
“We have navigated through a deadly pandemic as well or better than any other circuit in the state,” Youngpeter said.
The presiding judge confirmed the number of those responding for jury duty is down significantly. He said the 13th Circuit Court’s judges have been working on two fronts to address the problem. First, they are revising the summons letter sent to jurors. Second, the court has determined it needs to relocate its jury proceedings out of the Civic Center.
Youngpeter told Lagniappe the arena venue makes it so the courts cannot recycle jurors to serve on more than one case at a time. Jury proceedings can also not take place if there are scheduling conflicts with other events. The 2022 jury schedule was prepared with the expectation of not utilizing the Civic Center.
“This allows us to schedule more jury weeks for 2022 and also allows us to conduct more jury trials during each scheduled week,” Youngpeter said. “In fact, it should allow us to conduct almost as many trials as we were conducting pre-pandemic trials, assuming we have enough qualified jurors.”
The presiding judge told Lagniappe he believes Mobile’s judges are “extremely hard” workers and any narrative to the contrary is “unfair, untrue and disheartening.”
Youngpeter provided the newspaper with a letter he sent to Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker in June to request additional funding to maintain staff. In the letter, Youngpeter said Mobile is one of the busiest — if not the busiest — court systems in the state. He pointed to a 2019 report from the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts showing Mobile County’s 16 judges disposed of a total of 25,190 cases. In comparison, for the same period, Jefferson County’s 30 judges disposed of 25,009 cases and Madison County’s 12 judges disposed of 13,666 cases.
“Early on when the pandemic struck, I told my fellow judges that we likely would have to work twice as hard to get half as much done,” Youngpeter said. “I think we have done better than that.”
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