Too Many Violent Offenders Awaiting Trial Outside Jail, Says Mecklenburg DA
Mecklenburg County’s new bail policy is a big topic in law enforcement circles. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney criticized it last month saying too many violent offenders are on electronic monitoring, when they should be awaiting trial in jail. According to CMPD, 20 people charged with murder-related offenses are out on electronic monitoring. Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather agrees there’s a problem.
Spencer Merriweather: We believe that when violent criminals are released from custody, that it does create a chilling effect for people who ultimately could end up testifying in trial against them. That is a primary concern before a bail policy. That’s a primary concern for us after a bail policy. Lisa Worf: So how often are you seeing people who are charged with violent crimes, who you think should be in jail while they await trial, who are not? Merriweather: What I’ll say is that it does happen.
Mecklenburg’s change in policy ended the practice of tying bond amounts to particular charges – and resulted in sharply reducing bail. It was an effort to create some equity by taking defendants’ abilities to pay out of the decision to let them await trial in or out of jail.
Merriweather: Now if you’ve got the low-level petty person who is kept in on a $1,000 secured bond, there’s an open question as to how equity plays into that. I don’t think there’s any equity question when it comes to play when someone’s actually stuck a gun in somebody’s face, whether someone’s shot somebody and someone's robbed an entire family of their loved one. There are no equity questions with regard to that. There’s merely one question of whether or not our community is safer with them in custody as they await trial or whether they should be released. And I think that answer is simple. Worf: As far as what you’re seeing in terms of bail, do you think there’s been much of a change between previous and when they put the new bail policy? Merriweather: I think from a prosecutor's perspective we always have a level of concern about making sure that people who've committed violent crimes are getting out of custody. What we had before was a bond table, which said that maybe a judge might set a $100,000 bond on a murder case. That that was maybe suggested, which is fine unless someone meets it. And then you still have a violent criminal that's getting out. That was happening before. And I believe that, yes, there are still people who are getting out now that it's the state's position should not be. We will continue to make the argument in court just as we did when they had the old bond table when people were meeting those bonds and still getting out. What I'm telling you is that I believe that we should have preventative detention in North Carolina.
That would allow judges to keep defendants in custody as they await trial, based on whether they pose too much of a danger to the community. No cash bail needed. Currently, in North Carolina, a judge can only make that call in cases of capital murder. The federal court system allows for preventative detention and many states, too, but they have provisions that establish a time line for trials or require they be expedited. In North Carolina courts, trials can take a long time, often a matter of years in murder cases.
The majority of cases are resolved by plea bargain. We wanted to ask Merriweather about Eddie Doh’s case. He’s the suspect in last week’s murder at a Steak 'n Shake in south Charlotte. He was charged with first degree murder in 2011, but ended up serving just over seven years in prison after he pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact of first degree murder.
Merriweather said he can’t talk about that plea bargain because his office is currently pursuing charges against Doh. But he said his office doesn’t make plea bargains because of backlogs in the court system.
Mecklenburg County now has 215 murder defendants on the dockets, many of those from a 2017 spike in homicides when 85 people were killed. Merriweather says some of the backlog comes down to court time and the scheduling of judges.
Merriweather: I think that our system in North Carolina is structured around some antiquated formula of how we administer justice here. We typically have judges that have one week commissions to try cases in Mecklenburg County or try cases in any county in the state, which means that if we are able to try a breaking-and-entering case and it takes three and a half days, they are reluctant to start a new case on that Thursday because they don't believe they can finish up a second case before the end of the week, which means that you and I, as taxpayers, have lost 1.5 days of time. We could use that time somewhere else. What I would like to do is be able to say, "Well, Judge, after we finish this case we're going to go ahead and start an armed robbery that's actually going to go into the next week. And then right after that armed robbery that maybe ends on a Wednesday or Thursday, we're going to try a habitual felon." And when you're able to try those cases back to back and make sure you're not wasting any time, then you probably have a courtroom where you're able to try nothing but homicides, where you're able to roll through from case to case and actually provide some predictability for both your witnesses as well as for the community at large on when cases are actually going to come to trial in a timely fashion.