COVID-19 creates criminal case backlog across Georgia

Take a tour of the Fulton County District Attorney's office and one will find boxes lining the hallways, stacked to the ceiling, piled inside offices.

Reporter: "You were surprised by this, weren't you?"

Willis: "It was disgusting."

And though her county is the hardest hit, District Attorney Fani Willis is far from alone. Across the state, prosecutors face an overwhelming number of criminal cases - clogging up the court system.

Reporter: "Put an emotion on it."

Broady: "Oh, wow! I would just say anxiety."

Newly-elected Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady came into office facing a backlog of some 3,000 cases. Victims, their families, and defendants all waiting for cases to be indicted, charged, or dismissed.

"We've got people who are a danger to the community who are out on bond, we need to make sure we get them back behind bars, so they don't pose a danger," said Broady.

"First time he shot me, he got me right here," Donnie Montcalm said as he pointed to his face.

Montcalm was shot seven times in March 2019. Cobb County homeowner Larry Epstein was charged with shooting him and his co-worker Jake Horn after the two men finished up electrical work at Epstein's home. Jake Horn died.

Montcalm's trial was scheduled for last spring. It has been reset and he is still waiting - some two years later - for Epstein to stand trial for aggravated assault and murder.

"It sucks. It's hard. I want him convicted, I want him in prison where he can't do anything," said Montcalm.

The biggest backlog in the state is Fulton County. Over 12,000 unresolved criminal cases. Including 182 murders involving 222 defendants, still unindicted.

"The office was shameful," said Willis. 

Willis defeated Paul Howard, who left office under the cloud of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into his use of a nonprofit to pad his salary with almost $200,000 in the city of Atlanta funds.

Along with 12,000 open criminal cases, Howard left some 10,000 cases that were closed, but the paperwork had not been sent to the records room or sent to archives.

"The worst part of that to me is we were derelict in our duty to citizens," said Willis.

Howard did not respond to a text message from the FOX 5 I-Team asking for a comment.

But, Fulton County is far from alone.

"We're talking in excess of 60,000 cases easy," said Pete Skandalakis of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council.

Pete Skandalakis said it is statewide. When COVID-19 hit, Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton issued the first of 11 Statewide Judicial Emergencies effectively shutting down all grand juries and trials.

Which meant cases went from courtrooms to cardboard boxes.

"You're talking about years. I'd say three years to get through the backlog," said Skandalakis.

New crimes are committed every day, meaning more cases are added to that backlog. And, there are only so many judges and so many courtrooms. And once those courts open up, there are still problems.

Like Cobb County, right now, the ceremonial courtroom is the only one big enough to handle a trial with safe distancing. Just look at a jury box, with social distancing a judge could barely fit six jurors in a jury box. The rest would have to sit where observers sit.

So, look for more Zoom hearings and trials. District attorneys like Willis are making tough choices. She's working investigators and paralegals extra hours, hiring new prosecutors, and asking for two grand juries instead of one in March.

Justice will be slow, and prosecutors facing those backlogs will be forced to answer difficult questions.

"What is it you want to tackle at what time? How are you going to go about it? Because again, there is so much you can do," said Skandalakis.

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