Below, the pros and cons of plea-bargaining. In Durham, prosecutors
dismissed almost half of all felony charges filed in the county in the
last two fiscal years.
Plea-driven system dismisses half of felony cases
BY HUNTER LEWIS : The Herald-Sun
Mar 16, 2004 : 7:30 pm ET
DURHAM -- Felonies are hardball crimes that are supposed to result in
So why, state figures show, did Durham prosecutors dismiss almost half
of all felony charges filed in the county in the last two fiscal
Across North Carolina, prosecutors dismissed closer to a third of
felony charges. In Wake and Guilford counties, they dismissed about a
Court officials say prosecutors dismiss cases for many reasons. Police
and defendants don't show up in court. Witnesses disappear or refuse
to testify. And evidence from an arrest doesn't stand up in court.
But most of Durham's dismissals are tied to plea bargains, deals in
which prosecutors agree to drop most charges in exchange for a
defendant's guilty plea on others.
This fall, the issue of plea bargaining sparked communitywide debate.
Leaders from the Durham NAACP and other community groups, along with
parents of gun crime victims, called on the District Attorney's Office
to end all plea bargaining in cases involving a gun.
Court officials countered that ending the plea bargains would clog up
the courthouse to a near-standstill. Durham doesn't have the court
space or staff to accommodate more trials, which are the alternative
to plea bargaining, District Attorney Jim Hardin Jr. said.
Durham has a plea-driven system because negotiating plea bargains is
the most efficient way to keep cases moving, Hardin said. Felony
trials normally last more than a week; plea bargains take about 30
But plea bargains aren't unique to Durham. In fact, statewide, only
about 2 percent of felony cases reach trial. In Durham, prosecutors
took about 3 percent of felony cases to trial during the last three
years -- despite having more cases and fewer courthouse workers than
some peer counties.
Prosecutors say police contribute to Durham's high dismissal rate by
"puffing" or "loading on" -- throwing the book at people they arrest.
If police arrest someone for crack cocaine, for instance, they may
also charge him with possession of paraphernalia, resisting arrest and
possession with intent to sell and deliver.
"For police, the [multiple] charges might look good, but for the
District Attorney's Office, it might not look good," Chief Assistant
District Attorney Mike Nifong said.
Prosecutors dismiss some charges when a guilty plea on the rest would
result in an appropriate sentence, Nifong said. A defendant's sentence
for forgery, for example, would remain about the same whether he was
convicted on 10 counts or 50, Nifong said.
"The stats certainly don't reflect well on anyone involved in the
system," Nifong conceded. "[But] our intent is to do justice as good
as possible rather than make the statistics a priority. They're not a
Asked about Durham's 46 percent felony dismissal rate during the last
two years, Hardin wondered whether the Administrative Office of the
Courts figures were correct.
The AOC oversees the North Carolina court system.
He said he reviews court statistics, but that "justice can't be
"I don't want us to get so mechanical that we're not trying to treat
individual cases with individual merit," he said. "Some DAs have a
difference in philosophy."
Patrick Tamer, an AOC statistician, verified Durham's dismissal rate.
Tamer said the agency keeps the figures for management purposes, not
to compare one district with another.
"A case is a subjective animal depending what district you're in," he
That's because one judicial district might lump several criminal
charges into one indictment, as Durham does, but another district
might indict for each individual offense.
Bundling the offenses is more efficient, Hardin said.
"It looks better if we indicted every case individually, but it would
make us handle an astronomically bigger number of cases," Hardin said.
Hardin said the "vast majority" of the dismissals stem from cases
where prosecutors can't prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable
doubt, the required standard for a jury to convict someone.
When charging a defendant, police officers use probable cause, a
standard requiring that there be sufficient evidence to believe a
crime has been committed. But once the cases move through the courts,
prosecutors often find the evidence against a defendant too weak to
prosecute fully, Hardin said. So they plea bargain.
"How do you resolve cases that meet probable cause but not a
reasonable doubt?" Hardin asked. "That accounts for a vast majority of
cases we see [plea bargained]."
Bob Brown, Durham's lead public defender, was less diplomatic. Many
dismissals, Brown said, result from shoddy investigations, such as a
police raid on the Cheek Road Apartments in February 2002.
The raid netted 35 arrests and 65 citations. But Senior Resident
Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that the raid was illegal
because it violated residents' constitutional rights. Many of the
charges were dismissed.
"The prosecutors throw out cases [because of investigations], and they
do it a lot," Brown said.
But Police Chief Steve Chalmers said his department charges defendants
for every crime they commit. He also said the DA's office pleads too
many felonies down to misdemeanors.
"What ticks us off is when a case is reduced to misdemeanor," Chalmers
said. "We have good felony cases that are bargained down to
misdemeanors. We talk a lot about the resource issues and the
availability of DAs to try the cases and dispose of them. That's a
concern. ... [But] it's frustrating as heck when all the felonies are
put into one case and [the defendant] only gets a misdemeanor."
Last spring, District Court Judge Marcia Morey criticized prosecutors
for just that.
She said the District Attorney's Office let off James Camie Blevins,
who was charged with felony possession of heroin, cocaine and burglary
tools, weeks after Morey had refused to sign a misdemeanor plea
agreement for a 120-day suspended sentence.
"It was a misdemeanor slap on the hand," Morey said. "I rejected the
plea. The lawyer said, 'That's fine, we'll take it to another judge
next week.' "
Prosecutors wound up dismissing the felonies against Blevins.
Assistant District Attorney Tracey Cline said prosecutors could not
prove Blevins "had control of that controlled substance," so they
tried for the misdemeanor plea.
"If you can get something or nothing, you choose something," she said.
Court officials also point another finger at police officers.
The officers, they say, do not regularly show up in court to support
their own arrests, worsening Durham's backlog and dismissal rate.
District Court Judge Ann McKown, a former assistant district attorney,
said police once took up an entire bench while waiting to talk with
prosecutors. Police help flesh out details of a case beyond an arrest
warrant, which is often the only knowledge a prosecutor has of a case
during its early stages, she said.
But things have changed, McKown said.
"Somehow, over the course of time, officers stopped appearing," she
said. "It would make a huge improvement in the system if officers were
in court to prosecute their cases. The system would be more effective
and efficient if they were in court on the days they're assigned."
Chalmers agreed that court appearances are an essential part of police
work and blamed most officer no-shows on "miscommunication." The
Police Department has paid a full-time court liaison for more than a
decade to help schedule court dates, serve subpoenas and report truant
officers, he said.
Still, when it comes to court appearances, police officers aren't the
only ones who fail to show up.
Defendants skip court at least 20 percent of the time, court officials
say. The no-shows have resulted in an estimated 26,000 unserved
warrants since 1993, magistrates say. The warrants line an entire room
of shelves at the magistrate's office.
And often, even when defendants do show up, they and their cohorts
threaten witnesses in and out of the courtroom, officials say, cutting
off witnesses' willingness to cooperate with prosecutors.
"If a gang member goes to court on a charge, other gang members will
show up to see who is there and talking," said William Smith, an
intensive probation and parole officer for the state Department of
"Some [gang members] sit in the front, some sit in back to see who
istestifying or to intimidate the witness," Smith said. "It's hard for
the [district attorneys] to go in there to convict if there are no
witnesses to corroborate [a crime]."
Hardin acknowledged that it's tougher to find witnesses and persuade
them to testify in violent cases.
"It is very usual for us to have an armed robbery and the victim fails
or refuses to cooperate with law enforcement," Hardin said. "I don't
have a choice but to dismiss that case."
About the series
A three-day look at Durham's troubled legal system and the mounting
cry to fix it.
TUESDAY State's financial squeeze keeps Durham's legal system in a
TODAY Plea bargains, dismissals at the center of justice debate
THURSDAY Right to bond means some offend again
Afraid to mourn
Threats from criminals and their allies can reach beyond witnesses.
Family and friends of murder victims sometimes feel too threatened to
mourn in public.
Marcia Owen is outreach coordinator for the Religious Coalition for a
Nonviolent Durham, an 11-year-old group of local clergy and lay people
who sponsor vigils after every Durham homicide. The vigils are held
not long after the blood dries -- at a street corner, outside a
convenience store or in a front yard. They are intended to remember
murder victims and raise awareness about violence.
Owen recalled a vigil held at McDougald Terrace for Kenneth Holder on
May 16, 2002. Holder, 32, was fatally shot on April 14, one month
after he had accidentally stumbled upon another vigil on Carlton
"[Holder] joined us in prayer and encouraged us and thanked us for the
'good work' in Durham," Owen said. "A month later, he was dead."
At Holder's own vigil, Owen said, most folks stayed back, observing
"They said they didn't come over because they were afraid that they
would be seen as supporting Holder, which could get their homes shot
at," Owen continued. "I was shocked, and they said that people would
drive by and shoot at their homes if they got involved.
"Right now, people are terrorized," she said. "They're afraid to come
The reason cops love felonies is because felons cannot legally have
guns and the racist hatefilled cops want all blacks disarmed.
> The reason cops love felonies is because felons cannot legally have
> guns and the racist hatefilled cops want all blacks disarmed.
You couldn't possibly object to that--it fits perfectly with your
"The administration is making it clear they don't even need the UN
security council to sign off on a material breach...so furthermore,
I think the United States has always reserved the right and will
reserve the right to act in its best interests."
--John Kerry, Crossfire November 12, 1997
You two obviously know little about Durham - which is only 50 miles from
Durham's sky-high crime problems center around its demographics. It's a
"college town" with only the (very) haves and the (very) have-nots once the
cigarette industry that once was big there left - with no real middle class in
between. It's a city where overpaid Duke professors and well-paid doctors at
several hospitals are the "haves" - and the city has a huge population of
have-nots with no future. This combines with a huge illegal-alien subculture
in that town - and its brutal fight with local black have-nots - to produce a
hell of a lot of violent crime by North Carolina standards.
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> "The administration is making it clear they don't even need the UN
> security council to sign off on a material breach...so furthermore,
> I think the United States has always reserved the right and will
> reserve the right to act in its best interests."
> --John Kerry, Crossfire November 12, 1997
My favorite Kerryism:
"I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,"
- Senator John Kerry (D-MA)
He really *does* need to ask Aunt Jemima to be his running mate.
Or Louis Prima, writer of the classic song "Just a Gigolo."
Of course, Louis Prima is dead, which means that Kerry runs the risk of
being upstaged by his running mate.
John F[rench] Kerry is starting to boggle my mind. Frnnchy
offers this explanation that he voted for the eighty-seven
billion apppopriate, before he voted against it. Does frenchy
believe his explanation is going to convince anybody to vote for
him? Kerry is begining to approach Ross Perot levels of sanity.
What, in your opinion, counts as "overpaid"?
The demographics of Durham aren't a lot different from Raleigh though. Also
a college town, probably as many, if not more colleges and universities,
with an overabundance of have's and have not's also.
They are immensely different. Durham has no middle class. Raleigh has a
substantial middle-class job base.
>Also a college town, probably as many, if >not more colleges and universities
The difference is glaring. "College towns" - like Durham - have
functionally zero economy other than colleges and businesses catering to
well-heeled profs and students. Raleigh, OTOH, has lots of very-middle-class
jobs - from the immense state bureaucracy to lots of secretaries in law
Raleigh has also lost lots of it's middle class job base. Or perhaps our
definitions of middle class are a bit different? Raleigh may have a
substantial, according to your figures, middle class job base, but most of
those middle class jobs are involved in 'two income families'. Thereby
raising the total family income quite a bit. Raleigh is also the home to
many of the Research Triangle Park employee's. Other than Universities and
highly paid, well educated research and development type jobs, Raleigh is
sorely lacking in manufacturing and lower middle class/income type jobs.
> >Also a college town, probably as many, if >not more colleges and
> The difference is glaring. "College towns" - like Durham - have
> functionally zero economy other than colleges and businesses catering to
> well-heeled profs and students. Raleigh, OTOH, has lots of
> jobs - from the immense state bureaucracy to lots of secretaries in law
Sure, and most of those type jobs are employing the second part of a two
income family. Durham has a lot of jobs relating to their Universities and
Duke Medical Center. Nurses, lab technicians, secretaries, etc. Have you
tried to find middle income housing in Raleigh? Either apartments or
starter homes on the market? There is very little choice for those starting
out. Lots of high income type rentals, but little for those trying to find
a 'first place' to live in a moderately priced, safe area, especially when
one must come up with first and last months rents plus security deposit. As
for housing, much is available in the quarter million to half a million
plus market, but those usually aren't the homes young, middle income
singles/families are searching for as starter homes.
Coming from a large midwestern city with a large middle class/middle income
base, I found Raleigh to be rather divided into rich and poor, without a
whole lot in the 'middle'.