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Some Cumberland County trials not so speedy

Posted September 3, 2008

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— Michael Keith Lee was acquitted this week of murder and arson charges – five years after he was arrested.

The state Court of Appeals on Tuesday dismissed all charges against a Durham man serving 44 years in prison for a 2002 home invasion, ruling that his five-year wait for a trial prejudiced his case.

Similar delays in major trials aren't hard to find in Cumberland County.

  • John Lennon Wood spent more than four years in the Cumberland County Detention Center before pleading guilty to the March 2002 stabbing death of Angela Mosden, the wife of a Fort Bragg soldier.
  • Tyrone Patten, who was charged in January 2006 with the death of his 11-week-old son, is still awaiting a trial date.

District Attorney Ed Grannis didn't respond to requests for comment, but defense attorney David Courie said various factors can delay criminal trials for years.

"Oftentimes, you're dealing with witnesses, especially in a military town, that were here in January 2006 when the incident occurred and eight months later have been deployed halfway around the world," Courie said. "I would say the cases that may pop out to people's attention are oftentimes more the exception than the rule."

Lee was charged with the May 2003 death of Veronica Ward, whose body was found in a burned mobile home on Crystal Springs Drive. Ward died of smoke inhalation, and two other people were injured in the fire, authorities said.

Prosecutor Cal Colyer couldn’t persuade the jury that the fire was arson, prompting the acquittal.

Defense attorney Terry Alford said it's normal for a capital murder case to take two years to go to trial. In Lee's case, he said, the arson investigator for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office died several years ago, and Lee had a heart condition that required surgery.

“There was never a time I had to point a finger at the (district attorney) and say, ‘Shame on you,’" Alford said. "I wouldn’t say that anybody did anything wrong with this case. It was nobody’s fault that there was a delay.”

Courie said he finds Cumberland County to be among the more efficient criminal courts in North Carolina.

“We are constantly feeling the pressure of knowing that there are deadlines with the case management system for felony cases here in Cumberland County,” he said.

Both the prosecution and defense must take extra time with serious cases, such as murder, to ensure a just trial, Courie said.

“The ones that go to trial are generally factually and, from an evidence standpoint, the most hotly contested cases, which by their very nature are going to take longer,” he said. "Few people, even the innocent person who is wrongly accused, wish to see how quickly they can find themselves in court because time is wanted to be spent preparing an adequate, and hopefully successful, defense."

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  • Tax Man Sep 3, 2008

    What exactly is a "speedy trial"? How long should a defendant have to wait before his/her trial? If a defendant is ready to go to trial can they force the prosecutor to go? I remember back in California that if a defendant demanded a speedy trial the judge had to bring them to trial within 72 hours or dismiss the case. If the DA delays the trial and you sit in jail for years and are acquitted do you get compensated for the time you spent awaiting trial? Sure seems like a bad system to have to wait so long to go to trial - I would expect time would change everything.