Murder trial backlog courts

More than 50 homicide cases await dates

By Schuyler Kropf, The Post and Courier
Monday, January 7, 2008

Charleston County's record-setting murder pace in 2006, when 52 people were killed, most by gunfire, is straining the local court system.

 At least 92 people connected to more than 50 pending homicide cases from the past couple of years are still awaiting trial dates.

Three of the cases have five defendants each.

The county's top prosecutor and the public defender's office contend it is the largest backup of murder cases they've ever seen, with much of the blame falling on an upswing in other categories of crime that has cut into court dates for everyone.

"We have more multi-defendant cases than ever," 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.

"We're trying to work multiple cases at the same time," added Chief Public Defender Ashley Pennington.

Young men in the drug trade, drug addicts and domestic violence cases represent the brunt of those charged, officials say.

Typically, investigators for the prosecution and defense spend weeks or months developing strategies, interviewing sometimes reluctant witnesses and preparing for trial. This comes as the nearly 30 prosecutors in the solicitor's office and about two dozen lawyers in the public defender's branch carry up to 180 cases or more each, ranging from the mundane shoplifting charge to assault or murder.

When a murder case does make it to the courtroom, even a small hiccup can add to the backlog. In one recent example, a defendant skipped town Oct. 1, the same day his murder trial was to begin. When the solicitor's office was ready to try him again following his arrest a month later, his lawyer was ill.

In another example, a Charleston murder trial ended in a hung jury following an 11-1 holdout in October.

It too is destined for retrial that will eat up another week of court in 2008.

Another complication to clearing the murder case backlog is the limited number of weeks of court time available.

Courts don't run continuously in South Carolina, even in the larger counties. Charleston, for example, holds trial court only 33 to 35 weeks a year, and not all of that time can be dedicated to trying murder cases. Armed robberies, rapes and other violent offenses compete for judges and court dates as well.

To speed up the process, Wilson and Pennington recently began scheduling murder trials months in advance. This year's calendar is full to April. If successful, Wilson hopes to try about 50 of the defendants before 2009. She and Pennington also plan to take their concerns about staffing to Charleston County Council.

Charleston's first murder trial of the year is scheduled to begin today when Dominic Derricotte will face a jury for allegedly shooting Jennifer Skurow, 32, manager of a North Charleston Perkins Family Restaurant. She was shot with a pistol on the morning of Oct. 7, 2006.

The trial will go forward, barring any last minute delay.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at skropf @postandcourier.com 937-5551.

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