Darrell Black: Assuring justice can take considerable time
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of a series of columns written by candidates in contested races in the Nov. 6 general election.
As chief magistrate, an issue that has been brought to my attention is the length of time it takes to complete cases in Magistrate Court. In Magistrate Court there are misdemeanor cases, which are scheduled Monday through Friday to begin at 9 a.m., and felony cases, which are also scheduled Monday through Friday to begin at 10:30 a.m.
The magistrate assigned to hear the misdemeanor cases that day may have as many as 30 to 40 cases. In each case, the public defender or defense attorney has to talk to the client or defendant to see if they want to make a plea or go to trial. When the attorney receives the defendant's decision, he then has to meet with the prosecuting attorney to make sure they are in agreement with the defendant's decision. If an agreement cannot be reached, then the magistrate holds a bench trial at that time. In a bench trial you do not have a jury present.
After hearing the evidence through the testimony from both sides, the magistrate makes the decision of finding the defendant guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, sentencing by the magistrate can only be up to one year on each charge. When a bench trial is held, it can take an hour or longer. So you can see when the magistrate has 30 to 40 cases, and several of these cases are bench trials, it is very time consuming.
Felony preliminary hearings are scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. The magistrate assigned to hear the felony cases that day may have 20 to 25 cases. These cases are more serious and can be waived to the grand jury by the defendant's attorney with the defendant's approval, or the defendant can request a preliminary hearing to be held at that time by the magistrate. When the magistrate conducts a preliminary hearing, it is taped for the Circuit Court. The prosecutor presents his case first through the testimony by witnesses, and then the state rests its case. Then the defense attorney presents his case through witness testimony. After closing statements from both sides, the magistrate can make a decision to bind the defendant over to the Grand Jury because he/she feels that probable cause or reason to believe that the defendant committed the crime was established. Also, the magistrate can make the decision to dismiss the case, because probable cause had not been established. Preliminary hearings can take two to three hours, and if the magistrate has several in one day, it can take the entire day to complete these cases.
One of the delays we have to consider is with each arrest/case, there is a defendant, and/or victim, a police officer or officers, and each of these people have to be interviewed by the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney before any pleas or trials can begin. With these steps necessary for each case, it is very hard to speed up the process. The magistrate has the authority to go to the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney and ask them if they can speed up their negotiations, because there are more cases to be heard. At the same time, as a magistrate, you do not want to rush any process that could compromise the judicial system. Everyone is entitled to their day in court and a fair trial.
We now have more public defenders and more assistant prosecuting attorneys to handle the large number of cases, and this appears to be helping. Also when a case has been dismissed, continued, or a plea agreement by the defendant has been reached, the persons involved with these cases, as witnesses or victims, should be notified immediately and released from court.
The two changes listed above are a start on addressing the issue. This will help us run a smooth and professional court system and also help alleviate the length of time for cases in Magistrate Court.
Darrell Black, a resident of Huntington, is a Democratic candidate for Cabell County magistrate.