Some suspects face years in jail without indictments

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 11, 2014 

Murder suspect Derrick Harris' days held unindicted in the Muscogee County Jail are nearing the 2,000 mark.

He was jailed Dec. 13, 2008, charged with fatally stabbing his mother two days earlier.

Police said Harris in a drunken rage twice stabbed 62-year-old Lorraine Street with a kitchen knife, provoked by her threatening to evict him from her Claussen Drive home if he didn't pay rent. Relatives accompanied by police the following day found her blood-soaked body in her bedroom, where blood also was splattered on the walls and carpet, they said.

The knife was found in two pieces, its handle on one side of Street's bed and the blade on the other, investigators said. Harris had fled, moving in with a friend who turned him in upon hearing of Street's homicide.

Besides murder, Harris today remains jailed on charges of using a knife to commit a crime and armed robbery for taking his mother's cellphone.

But as his five-year-old case nears the six-year mark, he still has not been indicted, and the case against him can't proceed until he is.

That's how Harris came to be standing Wednesday before Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr., for a hearing that put the lawyers on trial, not the defendant.

His was the oldest of the unindicted cases Jordan summoned attorneys to explain in an hours-long set of "status conferences," hearings to update the progress of pending cases.

Jordan is not the only Columbus judge asking why inmates so long remain in jail without indictment.

Others also are setting hearings to question prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Only the district attorney's staff can seek an indictment. Defense attorneys can't demand it. Judges can't order it. It's up to prosecutors.

Harris' case initially was delayed so he could undergo a psychological evaluation, but that report was filed March 10, 2010.

The case at that time was in Judge John Allen's court, and Allen then noted the report was in and asked attorneys to review it.

On Wednesday, Steve Craft of the public defender's office represented Harris. The prosecutor was Assistant District Attorney Brad Bickerstaff.

Asked why the delay, Craft said he can't act without an indictment.

Bickerstaff said he and Craft have been working to resolve the case and feel they could reach some agreement within 30 days.

District Attorney Julia Slater told Jordan her office was reviewing its options.

Among those present at Wednesday's hearing was Chief Public Defender Moffett Flournoy, who also is concerned about how long inmates are jailed without indictment, some for minor offenses.

He said some nonviolent cases can be resolved without indictment. All the prosecutor has to do is draw up a formal accusation, and then the defense attorney can work out a plea.

If instead the defendant sits in jail for months, he or she may wind up doing the time the crime's penalty carries, as if already found guilty, without indictment, Flournoy said.

"A lot of these cases, the forgeries, the deposit-account frauds, some of these thefts, if these people are sitting in jail for six months, then they've already done whatever time they're going to do," he said. "Let's get them out; let's get them paying restitution and making the victims whole, and go ahead and move on to the stuff that really needs to be tried."

Flournoy cited other reasons his staff supports the judges' pressing to get cases moving:

• Those who have not been indicted within 90 days of their arrest by law are entitled to be granted a bond. The judge decides how high to set it. If it remains beyond the defendant's ability to pay, the defense later can ask that it be lowered.

• Inmates jailed for petty, nonviolent offenses occupy space best reserved for offenders who are a threat to public safety.

In reference to "the seven deadly sins," or most severe crimes, Flournoy said: "We've got so many cases where they're not charged with some of these seven deadlies. They're charged with shopliftings, petty thefts, drug cases. There's really no excuse why they're sitting in there for eight, nine or 12 months."

• The sheriff's office that runs the jail consistently has exceeded its budget, citing jail costs such as inmate medical care.

Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Gil McBride said the latter does not factor into the judges' effort to get cases moving, but protecting defendants' rights to fair and speedy trials does.

The Muscogee County Sheriff's Office's budget is a separate issue.

"That is something that needs to be resolved between the political branches of government," he said.

"Our concern is simply making sure that the Constitution's guarantees of a speedy trial and due process are met."

Slater said her staff is working to resolve cases.

"Some of these cases are delayed because we are working on trying to resolve them prior to an indictment or an accusation being filed."

Preparing the cases going to trial takes time, too, she said.

"Just because an arrest has been made on a case does not mean it's ready for trial, and before my assistant DAs can indict a case or file an accusation in a case, I tell them they should be ready to try the case. Then much of this time is spent with trial preparation so that they are ready to try those cases."

As Jordan heard cases Wednesday, he often noted the number of days a defendant had been jailed without indictment: 540 days for one charged with burglary, armed robbery, drug and weapons offenses; 288 days for one accused of terroristic threats and pointing a gun at someone; 274 days for one charged with aggravated assault involving family violence, whom the victim did not want to prosecute; 273 days for one accused of child cruelty, obstructing police and having a drug-related object.

Derrick Harris beat them all, as of Wednesday having been in jail for 1,943 days.

"OK, that's all I'm going to say about this case," Jordan said as Harris' hearing concluded. "I want it moved."

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