Speedy trials often in slow lane in rural N.C.
Posted December 10, 2008 5:58 p.m. EST
Updated December 10, 2008 7:33 p.m. EST
Dunn, N.C. — Kenny Hartley was arrested in June 2004, charged with killing his mother, his 11-year-old half-brother and his 13-year-old half-sister in Sampson County.
He didn't go to trial until this fall – more than four agonizing years later for his grandmother, Mallie Tyndall. Jurors last week sentenced Hartley to life in prison after convicting him of the three murders.
"It's been terrible," said Tyndall, who visited Hartley in jail every week. "It tears a whole family apart, a whole family."
Hartley was arrested within 24 hours of the slayings, and prosecutors said he confessed shortly thereafter.
"It took the court system 4½ years in this case – a rather simple case – to bring to trial," Sampson County District Attorney Dewey Hudson said. "You know, we won World War II in 3½ years."
Statewide, 90 percent of murder cases pending at the end of fiscal 2008 were under 3 years old, but a disparity in the age of cases can be seen between urban and rural counties.
In Wake County, for example, 90 percent of murder cases pending last year were 403 or fewer days old, or about 13 months. In Sampson County, the age was 1,609 days, or almost 4½ years.
Hudson said that when he started as an assistant prosecutor in his four-county district in 1977, a murder case went to trial within six months. He said a growing population means a growing caseload, and his resources haven't kept pace.
"There are too few defense lawyers. There are too few courtrooms, too few court personnel," he said.
In Durham County, 90 percent of the pending pending murder cases are 1,168 days or less, or a little over three years. In Cumberland County, it is 825 days, or less than 2½ years.
Hudson also pointed to recent state laws that make it more burdensome to bring cases to trial, endangering the constitutional guarantee of a speedy and public trial.
The Open Discovery Law, which requires prosecutors to turn over all of the state's evidence to the defense before a trial begins, creates an overwhelming amount of paperwork, he said.
"It doesn't just mean I've got to open my file," he said. "That law means I've got to go out and, in fact, many times create documents that don't exist or didn't exist under the old laws. It's just time-consuming."
Prosecutors and defense lawyers said any number of things can prolong a case.
In Cumberland County, for example, Michael Keith Lee was acquitted of murder in September after spending more than five years in jail. In that case, a key witness died, and Lee had a heart condition that required surgery.
Also in Cumberland County, John Lennon Wood was charged with murder in 2002 and spent more than four years in the county jail before pleading guilty. Tyrone Patten was charged with killing a baby in 2005, and his trial date hasn't yet been set.
"Rarely does a defendant ever come in and ask for a speedy trial," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
The longer defense lawyers can delay a murder trial, the more likely it is to weaken the state's case, Willoughby said.
"You can't find a witness, you lose a piece of evidence, someone's memory is faulty or uncertain," he said. "The passage of time generally works in the favor of the defendant."
For David Courie, a prominent defense attorney in Fayetteville, getting it right trumps getting it done fast.
"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," Courie said.
Willoughby said allowing the senior resident judge to set the calendar has helped Wake County dispose of most of its murder cases more quickly than other counties, where district attorneys usually control the schedule.
"Folks tend to abide by the judge's schedule a little better than when it was just the D.A.'s schedule," he said.
The personality of district attorneys also plays a role, with some being more open to plea bargains than others are.
In Hartley's case, defense attorneys said they could have resolved the case years ago if the state had agreed to a plea bargain. Hudson said he wanted a jury to decide whether Hartley should die because of the brutality of the crimes.
After 4½ years of waiting, Hartley got what the defense wanted all along – life in prison.