Right to a speedy trial? Long delays for some jail inmates - WSFX - FOX Wilmington, NC

Right to a speedy trial? Long delays for some jail inmates

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"It's like you are guilty until you prove that you are innocent instead of the other way around," said James Thomas. "It's like you are guilty until you prove that you are innocent instead of the other way around," said James Thomas.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) -  If you are arrested for a crime in North Carolina, it can sometimes take years for your case to go to trial.

New Hanover County courts are some of the fastest in the state when it comes to moving felony cases through the court system.

Still - we found a number of inmates who have been sitting in the New Hanover County jail for well over a year without a trial, charged with non-violent offenses.

James Thomas is one of them.

"I have no doubt that I can prove that I'm innocent. That's the easy part. I just have to get my day in court," he told us from behind the jail's glass partition.

Thomas has been locked up for over a year and a half. He's charged with trafficking heroin - but he's yet to be convicted.

"It's like you are guilty until you prove that you are innocent instead of the other way around," said Thomas.

Thomas is being held without bond, so he has no choice but to wait for his trial behind bars. At $80 a day - keeping him locked up has cost county taxpayers $50,000 and counting.

This prolonged delay is not an isolated case.

David Hurst is among the inmates sitting in New Hanover County Jail the longest. He was arrested April 23, 2012, accused of trafficking marijuana.

Hurst would need to come up with $10,000 to get out on bail while he waits for trial, but he doesn't have it.

"Who's the marijuana trafficker?!" Hurst asked us. "I have been sitting here all this time. Do you think if I was trafficking marijuana making all this loot, I'd be still sitting here all this time?"

For both of these inmates, we were told getting drug evidence processed through the backlogged SBI lab was a major source of delay.

Public defender Jennifer Harjo says she sees it all the time.

"They're prepared to proceed, they've been accused, they're being held, and they are ready to proceed with a trial," she explained.

Harjo says in cases with extreme delays, she sometimes files for a probable cause hearing for her client.

That's where the state has to prove they have enough evidence to go to trial - or drop the charges. But Harjo says she's never had such a hearing allowed by a judge.

So, if the US Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, how is this happening?

In 2008, the North Carolina Court of Appeals dismissed the conviction of a defendant who waited more than four years for a burglary trial, ruling the state violated his right to a speedy trial. But examples of that are rare. Judges have to consider a number of factors, and each case is unique.

Superior Court Judge Jay Corpening tells us that in cases where people have been behind bars for 6 to 12 months, accused of non-violent offenses, he thinks it's appropriate to consider reducing the inmates bond.

"If it comes to me personally, than I will look into it, talk to the defense lawyer, talk to the district attorney, to find out why the bond is that high," explained Corpening. "But the cases have to come to me before I can do something about it."

So for now, inmates like Hurst and Thomas will continue to wait.

Attorneys have slated Thomas for trial in March. If it actually proceeds as scheduled, he will have been in jail for two years by the time it happens.

While we were researching these delays, the SBI informed us that Thomas' lab results had been ready since last May.

It's not clear where the communication breakdown was, but the prosecutor says he was not informed the lab results were ready until October, adding nearly six months to Thomas delay. Prosecutors tell us because there are several co-defendants in Thomas's case, it's more complicated, and it will still be several months before they can proceed to trial.

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