Trials clog court system
Judge: Crammed dockets open doors to dismissed cases
It’s a case of too many trials and not enough time in Moffat County District Court, the court’s chief judge thinks.
A packed docket of jury trials is putting Chief Judge Michael O’Hara in a bind. The judge is scheduled to preside over back-to-back trials from now until late January for cases in Moffat and Routt counties.
People accused of felony charges that might result in jail time have the right to a “speedy trial.” “Speedy” means within six months; however, cases can be dismissed if they can’t be tried within that time.
“The message that we’re sending the defense bar is to set everything for trial because it will get dismissed,” O’Hara told Moffat County district attorneys Wednesday during open court.
O’Hara expressed frustration with the District Attorney’s Office for not hammering out enough plea agreements. He also said attorneys aren’t resolving cases in a timely manner.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Amy Fitch said prosecutors are not solely to blame.
“I would suggest it’s not all our fault,” she said. “There are only a certain amount of offers we can make.”
People accused of crimes usually state how they want their cases to be tried during an arraignment hearing. Judge O’Hara said district attorneys should try to wrap up cases at that time instead of setting them for trial only to hammer out a plea bargain at a later date.
Fitch requested that O’Hara call in a visiting judge if there is an overflow of trials. O’Hara said there aren’t many extra judges to handle district court cases.
Fitch also asked that trials be double-booked because it’s often unclear how a trial will play out. O’Hara said he was hesitant to do that.
“You guys can play tough on all these cases if you want, but you can’t try them all,” O’Hara said.
A defendant can accept a plea bargain at any time while his or her case is being tried.
Part of the problem might be that there are only two district court judges available to preside over cases in three counties in the 14th Judicial District. That means Judge Paul McLimans and Judge O’Hara split their time at courthouses in Craig, Steamboat Springs and Hot Sulphur Springs. The state decides how many judges should be allocated to each judicial district.
It’s hard to tell whether more criminal cases lead to an increase in trials, defense attorney Kris Hammond said.
As of Thursday, 179 criminal cases were recorded in Moffat County this year. Th numbers are very similar to 2004.
Hammond said that just because prosecutors offer a plea, his clients are not obligated to accept them. Making such decisions is part of his role as defense attorney.
“I think that any defense lawyer in the world would say that any plea is not good enough,” he said. “That’s what keeps us in business.”
Hammond said some cases might not have to go to trial if prosecutors charged people differently.
As an example, Hammond cited the second-degree murder charge against his client, Hugo Silva-Larios, in the shooting death of Craig resident James Pogline. Hammond said the charge against Silva-Larios should have been manslaughter, a Class 4 felony, from the outset. The 17-year-old ended up pleading guilty to the latter charge on the day his jury trial was scheduled to start.
“I believe that if some cases were charged correctly at the very beginning, they could be worked out,” Hammond said. “It has happened before that some cases were set for trial and they’re worked out days before or weeks before the trial. It’s certainly frustrating for clients who have paid for the case and it gets settled on the last day.”
Ultimately Hammond said it’s his job to get the best deal for his clients. And, the dismissal of a case is a defense attorney’s dream.
“This is not billiards, where I have to call the shots,” he said. “My job is to get the best outcome I can.
“If the docket is clogged and a case gets dismissed, that’s not my problem.”
Amy Hamilton can be reached at 824-7031.
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