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‘Terribly backed up’: Mecklenburg Co. D.A. pushes for courtrooms to reopen as more than 100K criminal cases backlogged

WBTV Investigates: Victims, suspects left waiting for years for their day in court
Published: Nov. 23, 2021 at 6:31 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Currently, there are more than 100,000 people waiting for their day in court in Mecklenburg County.

Those accused of a crime have had to wait a long time for a court date, some for two years or more.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather is calling on judges to reopen courtrooms as court delays continue and the backlog of cases mounts.

“How backed up are criminal cases in Mecklenburg County?” WBTV Chief Investigative Reporter Nick Ochsner asked Merriweather.

“Terribly backed up, and the fact is that you can’t shut down or line down a court system for almost two years at this point and not know that there’s going to be some drastic effect,” Merriweather said.

“People have continued living. They’ve continued going about their business, and sadly, crimes have still been committed and we already had cases that were backed up even before COVID began.”

Despite that, most courtrooms in Mecklenburg County remain closed. Next month, the courthouse will expand criminal district court by adding a second courtroom, which Merriweather said will allow his team to process DWI cases in addition to domestic violence cases that they’re currently processing in the one open district courtroom.

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Without court, District Attorney Merriweather and the prosecutors in his office can’t try cases.

“We’ve got to find a way to live and operate even with this virus, even with this pandemic that we know with the obstacle ahead of us is substantial,” Merriweather said.

“So why aren’t we holding more court in Mecklenburg County?” Ochsner asked.

“First of all, I think we should be holding more court in Mecklenburg County,” Merriweather said.

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Data from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the courts show more than 118,000 pending cases at the end of the last fiscal year, on June 30.

The number of filed cases has remained near-steady during the pandemic, while the number of disposed cases has dropped.

“I know that our senior resident judge has certainly a great challenge in front of them, and trying to balance both public health and public safety, but over here I’m telling you that public safety got to be, you know, something that we’re thinking about something that we’re prioritizing and we’re telling our court officials every single day that that has to be important,” Merriweather said.

Ochsner: “When do we hit the tipping point that you go to the judges and say we must get people back in courtrooms?”

Merriweather: “We’ve done that already, so that tipping point is there as far as my office is concerned.”

“And what’s their answer? Their answer is that yes, they understand that, but they also know that they do have these health challenges.”

Merriweather: “I know that our judges certainly clearly feel that way as well, and we’ve had people who have lost our life in this system within this court system because of COVID, and we would be wrong not to acknowledge that there is at least some risk.”

“The question is how you balance that risk? And so as we move forward, we certainly will be pushing our court officials to balance that risk in favor of getting dealing with the emergency that we have, which right now is, is our court system and making sure that it’s fully functional.”

Ochsner: “So what do you say to crime victims and people in neighborhoods that are experiencing violence? What do you tell them about why it’s taking so long to prosecute their case?”

Merriweather: “I certainly tell them that we are facing something that’s unprecedented.”

“But justice can’t stop, and so that’s what I tell these victims is that they we’re dealing with something unprecedented. We are pushing and pushing and pushing.”

WBTV emailed Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Carla Archie and Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch asking for their response to Merriweather’s comments but neither judge responded.

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