And Justice for Few
An assistant D.A. with 567 pending cases and less than ten trial dates a year? When queried about the crime problem, local leaders invariably point to our underfunded and overburdened court system as a huge handicap. The only thing that can fix it, they say, is money. Be careful what you wish for
By Melissa Hankins
Photographs by Chris Edwards
The new Mecklenburg county courthouse has only two active trial rooms.
Over the past six months, hundreds of Charlotte's residents and officials have joined together in an intense attempt to ask state legislators to increase the amount of money they dole out each year for the city's criminal justice system, spurred by horror stories from all involved. For years now, police have complained about jails too small to contain inmates, the District Attorney's office has bemoaned courts too busy and underfunded to prosecute them, and residents have described neighborhoods ridden with younger and brasher offenders than they've ever seen before—a number of whom have become that way, police and city prosecutors say, because they, too, are aware of the inefficiency of the city's punitive system, and are increasingly unafraid of it.
So, back in February, a group of more than 250 frustrated people, many with pictures of murder victims pinned to their chests, decided to get proactive about all this by kicking off a campaign aimed at winning state support, due to the fact that the city's courts and jails are N.C. funded. The group gathered at dawn to board a string of rumbling buses headed to Raleigh. They spent a long day lobbying lawmakers there and picketing in the state capitol's courtyards. They held press conferences and signed petitions, and they openly shared their distress. And the response they got was…chilly.
"Senators actually told the lobbyists to ‘stay out of our way,' " Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, says, sputtering with indignation. "That it was their business. They actually said that directly. Can you imagine what would happen if I said that? It was like they were upset because when a neighborhood leader stands up and begs for help—well, let's just say they can't stand and debate her like they can me."
In the months that followed, McCrory, members of the City Council, CMPD officers, and community activists kept the pressure on, though they were at first, McCrory says, discouraged. "We had to keep plugging, though," the mayor says. "After all, how can you fight crime in a town with a criminal justice system that's broken?"
Case in point: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Paige McThenia was supposed to be trying a case this summer against an alleged gun-toting drug dealer. But the trial got bumped, McThenia says, with a shrug of her small shoulders. The defendant was arrested back in 2005. He's been out on bail since then. But, McThenia says, as she sits in the back of the courtroom that should have been hers that day, she has no idea when she'll see him in court. If she sees him there at all, she adds, looking a bit listless.
In fact, on this steamy morning in July, McThenia says she's not sure when she'll see the other 207 defendants she was ready to try either. She is currently working on 567 pending cases. She says six of her co-workers are struggling with the same number. And the rest of the city's A.D.A.s—about fifty of them—have loads that come close. "It's crazy," McThenia says quietly, watching the stalled procedures of the case that took precedence over her own. The defendant on trial is charged with shooting into an occupied dwelling, his lawyer is late, the judge is annoyed, and the air in the room is taut as everyone waits for the inevitable announcement of an official delay, knowing it will only add to the mess that is this city's court system. "We are swamped," McThenia whispers. "We are drowning in cases."
Because there are at the moment only two trial courtrooms in Charlotte, A.D.A.s here only get to try between six and eight cases each a year. "But I've had twenty-three cases already arraigned and waiting for trial since 2005," McThenia says.
And, the real trouble is, when years tick by between the date a crime is committed and the date a trial for it finally begins, cases tend to fall apart. "When the backlog is so great and you might not get to trial for years, you have to think, where are my witnesses going to be?" McThenia says. "This weighs on us [A.D.A.s]. It makes a difference in whether we think we'll be able to win a case, and, then, how willing we are to make deals with defendants.
"It's impossible to manage it all," she continues, smoothing the somber suit she's wearing. "We can't handle these cases like they need to be handled. We end up making deals in order to deal with the caseload. That's why people think they can get away with anything in Charlotte."
McThenia also thinks criminals are particularly carefree about the crimes they commit here because they're confident that if they get caught, they'll get off. Local urban legend has it that thieves travel from afar to do their dirty work in Charlotte, as if the city were Wonderland for bad guys, she says.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Police officers say that many of the people they encounter treat arrests like a joke. Police say people taunt them with jibes from the back of their cruisers—cocky, even, in cuffs, confident that they'll be free in a matter of hours. CMPD Central Division Officer A.J. Dillingham says, "I'll arrest people who laugh and say, ‘Man, I'll get out before you get off your shift.' " Which, Dillingham says, is often true. He was working a late shift one night not too long ago, for example, when he discovered a drunk driver. "He was going the wrong way down the highway. DWI. I arrested him at 3 a.m., my shift ended at 5:45. I was putting away my car when I saw him walking down the street," Dillingham says, rolling his eyes in disgust.
District Court Judge Philip F. Howerton has been on the bench in Charlotte for fifteen years and says he has a host of other examples as well. Howerton says he routinely receives pleas from the Sheriff's office. "The jail brought us twenty release orders yesterday," he says. "The population over there is so high, they've continuously got 200 to 400 people sleeping on the floor. After the Fourth of July," when a slew of holiday revelers were arrested on various charges after the firework display uptown, "[some of] the Sheriff's officers came to see me, saying, ‘Please help us,' " Howerton says. "Let as many go as you can.' " Which, Howerton says, he had to do. "We set a lot of people free."
Howerton is "this brilliant, wonderful, crusty" guy, according to McThenia. He's been working in Charlotte since 1980, first as a lawyer at the District Attorney's office before becoming a judge in 1992. He has a white beard, a dry Southern drawl, and a biting sense of humor. He also has a reputation for being both speedy and lenient in his courtroom, which has drawn him criticism from the press. "We have over 110 defendants on arraignment to get through every afternoon," he explains, "and we have as many as 200 video arraignments to do in one afternoon. You can't put all these people in jail."
On this particular day, when McThenia has wandered down from the trial room she can't use to spend a few minutes observing Howerton, the judge is sitting before a crowded room, as a seemingly endless string of bond-seeking defendants in brightly colored jumpers are led before him.
Conspicuous among the observers is a family of five, a middle-age man and his daughters. One is pregnant, all are crying, and they're waiting to see if Howerton will grant their mother and sister bond. The two women were caught in Charlotte-Douglas International Airport with copious amounts of heroin and charged with Level 3 trafficking, the most serious of drug sale offenses. Explains the mother's defense lawyer: "This isn't something she involves herself in all the time. She was looking for an easy way out, to make money for her family."
"Good Lord," says Howerton. He sets the duo's bond at $10,000 each, forgoing any interaction with the daughter.
"That's a sad situation," McThenia chimes in. "When a woman gets to be middle-aged like that with no prior record and is suddenly trafficking heroin, well, you know she was acting out of desperation. If we could do something about the poverty around here, the lack of education and job opportunities, we could greatly reduce the area's crime problem."
The sisters who were crying are cheering now, and the family rushes out of the room. But others slide right into the seats they've evacuated, waiting to see how their family members or friends will fare before Howerton. The courtroom benches look like church pews, there are so many prayers being uttered, so many sets of clasped hands and eyes cast, apparently, toward heaven.
Howerton looks on over all this, and settles into his seat. He'll hear more than a hundred more excuses as the afternoon draws on.
"When you've been doing this for as long as I have," the judge says, "you begin to realize that not all the people you deal with are truly bad people, and you understand that to make the system work, you have to be flexible. Like," he says, "in certain drug charges, instead of throwing someone in jail, we'll put him in an in-patient or intensive out-patient treatment available where people are monitored and drug tested weekly. If they do well, we reward them. If they do poorly, we put them in jail for the weekend."
There are several alternative programs working as part of Charlotte's punitive system. The one Howerton just described is part of "the first drug treatment court in North Carolina," he says, "and we had the first DWI treatment court in the United States, too, which has gone on to become a national model."
In fact, District Attorney Peter Gilchrist says the work he's done that he's most proud of in his thirty-two years as the city's head prosecutor is helping to establish "the drug courts, a mental health court, and the Deferred Prosecution System, in which we take someone who did something dumb and out of character, avert them from the court system, and try to realize what made him [commit] the crime," he says.
These programs are aimed at keeping as many offenders out of the trial room and jail system as possible, but even with their help, Charlotte can hardly claim that its social programs are making "the system work," either.
The only thing that might make it work is a major infusion of cash.
Twenty-five million dollars more than what the city received last year, to be exact. "That would fix the problem," Gilchrist says. Other officials have stressed the same. "We need this extra money we're asking for," McCrory told members of the caravan to Raleigh as they traveled up I-85 through slick winter weather. "We really, really need it to set things straight."
Last year, Charlotte's grant from the state "was just about enough to bring us to the level other cities our size achieved in, say, 1985," McCrory says dryly.
There are two major reasons why Charlotte's judicial system has been neglected, according to McCrory. The first: North Carolina's Assembly is rural dominated. The Queen City doesn't have a substantial amount of indigenous representation there, and therefore, it's been overlooked. But the second reason Charlotte hasn't gotten the money its courts and jails need, the mayor says, is because there are lawmakers adamantly against providing it. "There are people behind the scenes who are trying to kill [our request]," McCrory says. "People who would rather spend money on other projects. I can't say who for fear of political backlash," he continues. "Right now the most important thing is getting that money for Charlotte. But there's a large group of people in Raleigh who, for philosophical reasons, don't want to add money to the criminal justice system. They want to put it in social programs and educational programs. Some people just don't believe in punishment. But, of course, they won't say this stuff publicly," McCrory says. "They say it behind the scenes."
Of course, Charlotte has its fair share of liberally bent leaders, such as Howerton and Gilchrist, who both show genuine enthusiasm for their jail deferment programs. And then there's the city's controversial police chief, Darrel Stephens, who wants all of his officers to spend 40 percent of their time attempting to solve various community-based problems thought to cause criminal behavior—a rule that some say has area police acting like social workers (For more on this, go to www.charlottemagazine.com and search "cops and robbers."). Stephens's critics claim he's too soft on crime and that he values rehabilitation over arrests. His supporters, including academics and other police officers (methods similar to Stephens's are used across the country), say that the approach is intelligent and effective. But the chief's best defense for his techniques could lie in the state of the criminal justice system. "What good does it do to go around arresting everyone when they're going to be right back out on the street again?" Stephens says.
It seems odd, then, that some liberal legislators would want to withhold funds from Charlotte's floundering courts and jails when the city has so many leaders and programs focused on prevention. Seems like the attitudes of the police chief and the D.A. and others would have softened a few hearts up in Raleigh, especially since, even though the city's leaders enthusiastically employ preventative programs, Charlotte still is buckling under the weight of its criminal offenders.
If you haven't seen Charlotte's fancy new courthouse, you really should go check it out. "The judge's quarters are gorgeous," gushes McThenia, as she pauses to gesture toward a giant, complicated piece of art hanging centrally in the building; a sculpture composed of 3,200 tiny gilded heads on timers that rise and fall to create the appearance of larger profiles. "And the new jury rooms are really, really nice, too. They've got pool tables and all kinds of stuff."
The courthouse, which opened last year, cost $148 million and was paid for by the county, mostly through a voter-approved bond issue. Could some of these especially lavish amenities have been spared, though, in order to add a third trial courtroom? "Well, if we had three courtrooms, we'd need another judge," McThenia says. And guess who'd have to pay for that—the state.
McThenia's office is across the street, in the old courthouse, and it, however, is very modest; small and shabby, like that of the other A.D.A.s. The white walls are scuffed, and her desk looks decidedly inexpensive. Her case inventory is located in a bulging, ratty notebook. ("The UPS man drives around with more sophisticated ways of tracking packages than we've got for tracking cases," Gilchrist says. "Our technology is archaic.") A calendar in her office shows that there are only six dates when trial space will be available for the rest of the year.
"Around here, you definitely have to jockey for your trials," she says, sighing. "And homicides have priority, so everyone's always getting bumped for those."
Last year, McThenia tried only five cases. She says she can't estimate the number that were dismissed due to disappearing witnesses and time-related complications, though. "There are CMPD officers who have that specific job, digging up lost witnesses," she says, "and they work super hard." She says she can't say how many plea offers were made due to those kinds of reasons either. She picks up her case book, flips through it, and sets it back down with a thud. She is a petite woman, and the notebook looks heavy in her hands. "You can be paralyzed by the weight of the inventory if you allow yourself to be," she says.
Gilchrist says the turnover among A.D.A.s is high. "We start them at $38,000 a year. Some of the big uptown law firms start their lawyers at $125,000 a year. Many lawyers graduate with high amounts of debt," he says. "Many of them can't afford to work for us."
But McThenia says she and the co-workers she most admires do their job out of a love for it and an obligation. "Despite it all, though, I'm crazy about my job. I do it because we have a huge problem with crime in Charlotte, and I want to be part of the solution. Some of the people I work with, the other A.D.A.s, are the smartest people I have ever met. Really talented. And, yeah, we could all be making tons more money. But we choose not to, because our work is important.
"There this kind of cheesy but inspiring moment in Batman Begins, when Katie Holmes walks up thrusting out her badge, and she says so proudly, ‘I am an assistant district attorney for Gotham City.' There are so many times I wish I could do that," McThenia says wistfully, twisting the string of pearls around her neck.
Turns out McThenia might want to shine up her proverbial badge.
In early August, the N.C. General Assembly made an important move toward giving Charlotte the money it needs. It granted the $38 million Charlotte lobbied for, and in mid-August (after this story has gone to print) another state committee will meet to begin deciding exactly how those funds will be distributed across the state. The money will come from raising court fees by about ten dollars.
"This is some of the best news I've ever heard," says City Council Member Nancy Carter, a Democrat. "This is huge. Gigantic. A tremendous boon for us all. And if we hadn't spent so much time up in Raleigh, it never would have happened. Our problems have finally been addressed."
The news may seem surprising, given Raleigh's initial reception of Charlotte lobbyists. But McCrory says in the last few weeks he was told to expect it. "I give a lot of credit to the caravan," he says. "The pleas of neighborhood leaders and crime victims were more effective than anything I could have ever said. In this whole fight, they were the most effective thing of all. And, you know, we continue to receive criticism about the way we went and lobbied—about our grass-roots approach. In Raleigh, they want you to play the inside game. But what was going on behind doors wasn't working. What does work is cameras and real people and compelling stories that can't, ultimately, be pushed aside. This is the most progress that's been made for Charlotte's criminal justice system in over a decade.
"It will have a positive impact," the mayor says. "Eventually, it could help reduce crime rates. Of course, we've still got a lot of work to do. This is just the first round of moneys we'll need."
The first round? What happened to victory?
"Well, the victory," McCrory says, "is that for the first time this city was able to get the figure for criminal justice increased. Now the state's got to decide how those funds are going to be distributed." It's likely that Charlotte will receive a fair share, though—after all, it would be odd for the state to make the grand gesture of granting the city the money it asked for if it planned on snubbing the city later during distribution.
"Yes, it's everything we asked for," McCrory says. "But when we asked for that sum we really just wanted to get our foot in the door. To wake people up. We finally received something, at least, but there's still so much that needs to be done. Even with this money, there will still be plea bargains and nonprosecutions. In the long run," he says, "every arrest should be backed up by a chance for prosecution. And jail time. This hasn't been occurring here for a long time. But now—in the long run—it will."
If the mayor and other city officials suddenly seem more pensive about the assembly's decision, perhaps this is why: Charlotte has long been blaming the state for its judicial system woes, and from all accounts, for good reason. But, now that the city has for the first time received the amount of money it requested, it will have to turn an eye inward. For now, Raleigh can no longer be the scapegoat it was. Now, with the city's first major criminal justice cash victory, our leaders will have to take more responsibility for our court system—the root, they've been saying, of Charlotte's crime ills. Be careful what you wish for.
Melissa Hankins, a contributing editor for this magazine, is writing a four-part series on crime in Charlotte. Respond to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org