Dispatches from a Reporter's Notebook

Oiling the wheels of justice

Posted March 24, 2010
Updated March 25, 2010

Not a day goes by that someone doesn't ask me why it takes so long to arrest someone on murder charges, why it takes so long for a murder case to come to trial, and why it takes so long to try a person for murder.

I have three recent examples.  One is the investigation into the murder of state school board member Kathy Taft.  It is just a few weeks old – which is still young by the standards of most murder investigations in Wake County – but dragging on according to a public eager to have answers about the safety of their community.  Unfortunately, unlike television crime dramas, murder cases are not solved in an hour.  Sometimes it can take months, even years, for investigators and prosecutors to build a trial-ready case that can live up to the expectations of today's juries, expectations that include detailed scientific proof such as DNA to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

One of the main reasons that it takes so long to bring a murder case to trial is that as an area grows, the number of murders increases.  In Wake County, for example, it used to take about a year for a murder case to come to trial.  Now it can take as long as two years depending on the complexity of the case.  Add to this the new frontier of including detailed computer and cell phone records into evidence, it means that murder cases can spend months languishing in pre-trial motions before a trial can ever take place.  The case of Brad Cooper, a Cary man charged with killing his wife, Nancy Cooper, in July 2008, is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  The defense is asking for a voluminous amount of information from the state in the discovery phase of the case.  While the open-file discovery process is designed to make the system fair for the defendant, it can also remarkably stall the wheels of justice.

Finally, it can take months to try someone charged with murder, especially in a death penalty case.  In a death penalty case, jurors must be "death penalty qualified," which means they must be able to put their personal beliefs aside and vote for the death penalty if the facts of the case warrant such a sentence under the laws of North Carolina.  Many people say they would be able to impose the death penalty, only to have second thoughts after the trial has already started.  This could lead to a juror finding someone not guilty just because they don't want to be faced with such a difficult decision.  The Sam Cooper murder trial which is currently ongoing in Wake County is a perfect example of such a case.  It took about a month to pick a jury, and the trial is expected to last at least a month.  Cooper is charged with shooting and killing five men during a string of robberies between May 2006 and November 2007.

At times, it seems like we should oil the wheels of justice and make things work more efficiently.  If only the solution could be so simple.  The balance between the public's right to know, a defendant's right to a speedy and fair trial, and the importance of making a decision about whether someone lives or dies is a delicate one.  And it's one that doesn't happen in an hour ...

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WRAL's Amanda Lamb offers a behind-the-scenes look at what TV news reporters do, the people they meet and how their jobs affect them.