Published: Feb 07, 2009 12:30 AM
Modified: Feb 07, 2009 01:44 AM
Tracey Cline, who made local history last month when she was sworn in as Durham's first female and first black district attorney, hopes to change another course of history during her early weeks in office.
The state Court of Appeals rebuked the District Attorney's office in a September ruling when a three-judge panel found that a man sentenced to more than 60 years in prison on charges of burglary, robbery, kidnapping and attempted sexual assault had been robbed of his right to a speedy trial.
Since then, Cline has been working with Orlando Hudson, the chief resident superior court judge, defense lawyers and others to identify lingering cases so they can be scheduled for trial.
"What we've done is focus on people in custody first," Cline said in an interview shortly after becoming the district attorney.
The case that has the lawyers and judge keeping an eye on jail custody lists is Frankie Delano Washington's. Washington, 48, was an auto mechanic who waited four years and nine months to go to trial on accusations that he invaded a Trinity Park home, not far from Duke's East Campus, and traumatized two adults and two children inside.
The home invasion occurred in May 2002. The trial was in February 2007.
Washington was in jail, awaiting trial for 366 days, before bail was reduced to $37,500 and he was able to post it.
The Court of Appeals tossed out the charges against Washington in September.
On the fifth floor of the Durham County courthouse, there was evidence this past week of the renewed effort to whittle down the backlog of cases, particularly the more violent charges.
On Tuesday, a jury quickly rendered a guilty verdict in the first-degree murder case against Mario Fortune, one of four men accused in a 2004 gang-related killing of Reginald D. Johnson. In a courtroom just down the hall, expert witnesses testified in the retrial of Timothy Uzzelle, the man accused of killing Ahmed Raja in a convenience store robbery caught on videotape in May 2005.
Hudson, the judge who presided over the Fortune trial, said there are many variables to consider when looking at how quickly cases move through the justice system.
Fortune was in jail, awaiting trial, for four years. But Hudson said when more than one suspect is charged in a homicide, as often happens in Durham, it can take years to resolve all the cases. Prosecutors like to try the suspects in a specific order to get information from one that can bolster their case against another. Defense lawyers, too, can delay trials with requests for information that might help their clients at trial.
As the legal maneuvering goes on, judges have to weigh bail requests with worries in Durham about some murder suspects who have been released from jail and charged with additional violent crimes while awaiting trial on the earlier charges.
"We don't want anybody sitting over there in jail for more than a year if we can help it," Hudson said. "But there are some cases when that's going to happen."