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Mecklenburg County Dismissed 68% Of Gun Charges From 2014 - 2018

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FLICKR/TONY WEBSTER

A series published in the Charlotte Observer reveals that between 2014 and 2018, 68% of all gun charge cases in Mecklenburg County were dismissed, giving it the highest dismissal rate among urban counties in the state. The report puts the dismissal rate for weapons crimes in Wake County at 45%. Even more disturbing, many of those arrested for weapons crimes in Mecklenburg County had charges brought against them multiple times. Some had more than 40 weapons charge dismissals. Many of these suspects were later charged with murder in other cases. 

With "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to talk about the series, titled “Dismissed" is one of the three reporters who worked on the series, Ames Alexander, an investigative reporter with the Charlotte Observer. 

Ames Alexander
Credit Charlotte Observer
Ames Alexander

Gwendolyn Glenn: What prompted you guys to do this series? Was it a particular incident? A report? 

Ames Alexander: Yeah, 2017 was a particularly deadly time in Charlotte. There were 87 murders that year. And so in January 2018, I started talking with Gavin Off, the Charlotte Observer database reporter, about this and we were wondering why it was such a violent year. So we got a big database from the State Administrative Office of the courts and began. And Gavin began analyzing it. So that's kind of how we got rolling on it. 

Glenn: Did it just pop out at you that a lot of people who had been arrested for gun cases were being dismissed?

Alexander: Yeah. That's the thing that really jumped out at us that time and again prosecutors were dismissing gun charges particularly in Mecklenburg. In Mecklenburg, they were dismissing more than two-thirds of gun charges. And some suspects were getting their charges dismissed time and time and time again. And then going on to get arrested for more serious crimes sometimes even murder. 

Glenn: And these statistics are pretty alarming. In your series you say that 68% of weapons charges were dismissed between 2014 and 2018. Is that correct? 

Alexander: That's correct. And statewide about half, about 50%.

Glenn: So why is that happening?

Alexander: Well, I mean prosecutors here say they tried very hard to prosecute cases where they have available evidence but they say that sometimes they just don't have the evidence to prove that defendants did it. Witnesses may not be available. They may not be willing to testify. They may not be credible but former prosecutors say that one of the real problems is that this court system is just totally overwhelmed and underfunded.

Fewer than 1% of criminal cases actually go to trial so prosecutors have to deal with all of the rest in primarily two other ways: plea bargaining them or dismissing them.

Glenn: We've talked a lot about the numbers. Can you put a face on some of these cases?

Alexander: There was, for instance, a guy by the name of Mario McGill who had 13 weapons charges from 2007 to 2014. All of them were dismissed. And so he was free on January 5, 2015 when he shot and killed a childhood friend Robert Miller. Had he been convicted on one of those serious prior gun charges he would have been in prison at the time. 

Glenn: You also talked with the district attorney's office and I'm sure prosecutors and District Attorney Merriweather. What did he have to say about this and why it’s happening?

Alexander: Well, one of the things he says is that Mecklenburg has more big-city problems than other cities in North Carolina. And as a result, he says you've got more people who are distrustful of police, more people who are distrustful of prosecutors. So it's harder to win the cooperation of potential witnesses in cases.

Glenn: So did he talk to you about solutions they're thinking about. 

Alexander: Yeah one of the things Spencer Merriweather is talking about is possibly getting some grant money to put prosecutors in high crime neighborhoods with the idea that they could earn the trust of residents.

Glenn: What were you told could be some solutions?

Alexander: Well, one big one is better funding for the state courts. We have one of the most poorly funded court systems in the country and we Mecklenburg and Wake have fewer prosecutors than almost any county their size nationally. And this is all a function of having a short funded court system. So if you put more money into the courts more cases could be tried. Prosecutors could, you know, push a little bit harder on some of these cases.

Glenn: Have you talked to any of those who have been charged and had the charges dismissed time and time again? What are their thoughts in terms of how the system works? Do they look at it as a joke?

Alexander: We did talk with some people who had been charged with weapons crimes and they said that, you know, Mecklenburg has a reputation for being easier on crime. They are aware that, you know, in other counties they're more likely to, you know, get some serious punishment. 

Glenn: Well, thanks for talking with us today. 

Alexander: Thank you for having me.

Glenn: Ames Alexander is an investigative reporter with The Charlotte Observer. He co-wrote the series Dismissed with database reporter Gavin Off with The Charlotte Observer and David Raynor, a database reporter with The News and Observer in Raleigh.