In the wake of recent crimes in Statesville and misinformation about the court process, I thought it would be a good time to explain the process and the roles of some of the parties involved.
The duties of the District Attorney are to prepare the trial dockets, to prosecute criminals, to represent the state in juvenile matters and to advise the officers of justice (law enforcement officers) in his or her district. Assistant district attorneys are lawyers appointed by the district attorney who take the same oath of office as the district attorney and have the same duties.
One of the duties of law enforcement officers is to investigate crimes. In my district, there are seven local law enforcement agencies that investigate crimes — the Alexander County Sheriff’s Office, the Taylorsville Police Department, the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office, the Mooresville Police Department, the Statesville Police Department, the Troutman Police Department and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. Once officers in these agencies charge a crime, the case is set in District Court. If the case is a misdemeanor, the case is handled in District Court. It can either be disposed by a guilty plea or by a trial in front of a judge. If the defendant is found guilty (or even pleads guilty) in District Court, he or she has the right to appeal and to receive a new trial in Superior Court.
If the case is a felony, the officer must turn in a report to my office. All felony cases are screened by the assistant district attorneys (ADAs) in my office. The ADA screening a felony case decides whether the case will be dismissed, disposed of in District Court as a misdemeanor or sent to the Grand Jury as a felony.
If a case is sent to the Grand Jury, a law enforcement officer testifies before the Grand Jury as to the basis for the charge. The grand jurors then determine whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed by the defendant. If the answer is yes, the Grand Jury returns a true bill of indictment, and the case goes to Superior Court. If the answer is no, the case does not move forward.
ADAs make decisions regarding cases based on several factors, including: the facts and circumstances surrounding the case, the relevant law regarding the offense, the strength of the evidence, the credibility of the witnesses and the prior record of the defendant. Cases that are not resolved by some type of guilty plea or plea arrangement are scheduled for trial. We have roughly 18 terms per year in which to conduct trials.
Prosecutors must have all the information available on a case in order to review it, and all that information must be given to the defendant before trial. Sometimes this means further investigation is needed by the law enforcement officer. In order to prosecute a case, we must have information that satisfies the elements of the crime, and we must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. There is a big difference between officers having probable cause to charge a crime (basically, showing that the defendant probably did it) and proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant committed a crime.
Sometimes cases are dismissed for precisely that reason — we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. And that is our job too. We are not just called upon to prosecute offenders, we are called upon to administer justice. Sometimes justice means dismissing a case. Sometimes it means pleading it down. Sometimes it means going to trial. Our job is to make those determinations based on the unique situation in each case.
When offenders are arrested, they go before a magistrate who sets their bond. The district attorney’s office does not set bonds. Later, a defense attorney may make a motion to lower the defendant’s bond, or an ADA may make a motion to raise or revoke the defendant’s bond. A judge, not the district attorney’s office, decides whether to modify the bond.
Most defendants charged with serious offenses have attorneys representing them. In order for the defendant’s case to be tried, the defense attorney has to be available and ready for trial. It is not enough that the state (represented by the ADA) is ready for trial. All parties must be available and ready to proceed.
Beginning in March of 2020, the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court suspended all jury trials in the state of North Carolina. Our last trial in Iredell County before COVID was in February of 2020. We did not resume trials until April of 2021. Fourteen months without a single jury trial!
When we did begin trials again, for the safety of the participants and the jurors, we had to conduct them in the Unity Center — in a big gymnasium-type room, NOT a courtroom. For the first few trials, we were instructed not to try anything serious (such as a murder or felony assault) because of the new venue and because of concerns about assembling the parties for a trial in the midst of the pandemic.
Despite the shutdown of jury trials, we were able to dispose of 39,281 cases during the fiscal year 2020-21. This is compared to 33,174 cases the year before.
Currently, in Iredell County there are 32 defendants with pending first-degree murder charges. Interestingly, 11 of those defendants are charged in one murder case. In that same case, which was charged in 2018, my office has been receiving investigative reports from law enforcement agencies involved in the case as recently as June of this year, and there are still items of evidence yet to be analyzed. The district attorney’s office is not the agency that analyzes evidence.
Since 2017, my office has disposed of 21 murder cases. On Monday, my office dismissed a first degree murder case. It was dismissed because, after reviewing the evidence and meeting with the law enforcement officers involved, we found that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the case. The defendant was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon, and by dismissing the murder case rather than going to trial on a case that we could not prove, we left open the possibility of being able to proceed on the murder charge later in the event that more evidence becomes available.
I agree that the cycle (of crime) must stop, but I do not think that the way to do that is to blame people in the court system for doing their jobs and for having to do the best that they can with the cases that they are given. I recently spoke by phone to Ms. Williams from the Success Institute in Statesville who had concerns about crime and about the court system in Statesville. She had questions about how the system works, and we had a good conversation about some of the issues that our community faces. At the end of the conversation, she asked me if she could pray with me. I told her that I wished that she would. And so she prayed with me, and for me. She prayed for those in my office and for others in leadership in our community. She prayed that we would have wisdom and understanding and that we would work together for the good of our community.
What I wish for our community is that there would be more of that, and less pointing fingers and telling part of the truth.
Sarah Kirkman is the District Attorney for Alexander and Iredell counties.