Stanislaus County’s backlog of murder trials apparently is the worst in California, according to a new Modesto Bee analysis based on data from 45 of the state’s 58 counties.
Stanislaus’ 108 pending murder cases, amounting to 20 for every 100,000 people, is about three times the per-capita average rate in counties of any size, The Bee’s analysis shows.
A separate review also dials into individual Stanislaus courtrooms, concluding that Judge Nancy Ashley’s 16 pending murder cases is double that of her most efficient colleague. Also, Ashley presides over three times as many old murder cases, defined as five years or longer, than any of the seven other criminal judges, and her average case age – 4.1 years – is highest as well.
In contrast, Judge Thomas Zeff’s caseload of murder trials is down to nine, none older than five years.
All eight judges were provided an opportunity to comment. None accepted, except for presiding Judge Marie Silveira, who broke her silence with a short but congenial interview more than two weeks after The Bee’s initial inquiry.
Silveira acknowledged that she had been unaware of Stanislaus’ standing as the state’s slowest court system for murder trials. She has begun meeting with county administrators in an effort to improve efficiency, and shared thoughts on a potential remedy based on the idea of reassigning one or more of the county’s 13 other judges to help unclog the eight criminal courts.
“One of the things I do appreciate about your investigation,” she said Thursday during a 20-minute court recess, “is it’s brought this one topic into focus. But it’s part of a very complex situation.”
Resources are an issue. This county was very hard hit in the recession.
Marie Silveira, presiding judge, Stanislaus County
The Bee revealed two weeks ago that Stanislaus’ logjam is three times the average among 17 counties for which data were then available, and noted that the origin of the spike roughly coincided with both a new courthouse procedure for routing cases and the 2006 election of District Attorney Birgit Fladager. She blamed the calendaring change, which is stridently defended by court administrators, while some county supervisors questioned judges’ commitment to moving things along.
The review also noted that Stanislaus’ murder rate was lowest among its neighbors – San Joaquin and Merced counties – and cited statewide data showing that Stanislaus judges are not overburdened compared with other counties. And, fewer Stanislaus felonies are resolved within 12 months than in neighboring counties or the statewide average.
New survey confirms barrel-bottom status
In the two weeks since, enough counties throughout California responded to The Bee’s information requests to suggest that Stanislaus’ backlog is unmatched, regardless of size or location:
▪ Stanislaus’ number of murder defendants – 144 – dwarfs those in Contra Costa County, which has 100 despite having twice the population. The local mark also is higher than the 128 defendants in San Diego County, whose population is six times that of Stanislaus.
▪ Stanislaus’ 18 murder cases at least 5 years old are more than the 15 each in San Bernardino and Santa Clara counties, both more than three times larger. San Francisco has only 5.
▪ Adjusted for population, no other county comes close to Stanislaus’ rate for old murder cases, or 3.4 for every 100,000 people. For example, Los Angeles’ rate is 1.6, Sacramento’s is 0.4, Ventura’s is 0.6 and Merced’s, 0.8.
Silveira noted an increase in serious cases in recent years, coupled with reductions in resources such as public defenders, prosecutors and judges.
The uptick trend in complex cases is documented in the California Judicial Council’s “2015 Court Statistics Report,” an annual study released Tuesday. Although the entire caseload throughout California dropped 3 percent from the previous year, felony filings crept up 4 percent, the report says.
The report also suggests that Stanislaus may pursue a more strict brand of justice than many places. Adjusted for population, judges and prosecutors secured 851 convictions per 100,000 population, compared with 731 in Fresno, 566 in Merced and 560 in San Joaquin.
Fladager is pursuing nine death penalty cases at the moment, according to court administrators, compared with four in San Bernardino County, whose population is nearly four times larger.
Surveys of public opinion concerning the courts consistently find the chief complaint to be the slowness of case resolution. There is a substantial disconnect between public expectations for the timeliness of court decisions based on the current pace of business and the current pace of the American judicial system.
“Model Time Standards for State Trial Courts,” National Center for State Courts
Stanislaus’ sluggishness in murder cases, however, lags far behind state and national goals, called time standards. California’s 2007 target, incorporated in the state Government Code through the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act, says all felonies should be resolved within one year; the national standard, adopted by associations of judges, court administrators and lawyers, says 98 percent should finish in a year.
Compared with standard, Stanislaus pace on life support
“Courts must respond to the quickening pace of everyday life, and the public is justified in expecting that their legal disputes can be resolved more quickly than they have been in the past,” reads the national “Model Time Standards for State Trial Courts.” It urges judges and court administrators “to see (efficiency) as an essential part of their work and to promote public trust and confidence that the courts are committed to expeditious processing of cases.”
Rebecca Fleming, Stanislaus’ court executive officer, said all players in the local justice system work diligently.
“I would argue that it’s not a broken system,” Fleming said. “We’re facing a lot of challenges, but I think everyone is rising to it.”
There is no one broad, general answer to that question (of why Stanislaus murder trials move more slowly than elsewhere). A lot of times it can’t be helped because it’s the law, or you’re limited by the resources you have. I know it sounds like cliché answers, but there are legitimate reasons.
Rebecca Fleming, court executive officer, Stanislaus County
Her office provided case numbers that differ from prosecutors’: Fleming counts murders, while Fladager counts the number of potential trials pending. Fladager’s number is greater because some murders have two or several defendants and circumstances often require separation of their trials.
Fleming provided The Bee access to murder case numbers and files stuffed with hundreds of tracking forms that usually do not include reasons for trial delays. Some that do range from defendants needing eyeglasses to new evidence of more guns at a murder than officers initially thought. One was continued when a court reporter’s notes diskette was corrupted. The attorney of a suspected gang member facing the death penalty for shooting a man in a home invasion robbery asked that his client be declared mentally incompetent to stand trial; the defendant asked the judge, in a handwritten note, to fire his attorney. All resulted in delays.
“Each judge evaluates a case on its merits,” Silveira said. Murder cases get special attention, she said, “because the consequences of these cases are so great. ... Attorneys want to make sure they’ve left no stone unturned.”
Judges, she said, take care to minimize the chance of verdicts being overturned should a defendant appeal a conviction.
Haste can make waste
For example, appellate justices in February ordered a new trial for Darren Jack Merenda, who six years ago stabbed a man to death in a jealous rage over an ex-girlfriend in Turlock, authorities believe. Two weeks before Merenda’s 2011 trial, he tried to switch his public defender for prominent private defense attorney Kirk McAllister, who would have needed more time getting up to speed on the case.
The prosecutor objected, saying the U.S. Army would send a soldier home briefly from Afghanistan to testify as a “critical witness” in the trial, and that persuaded the judge to order that the trial stay on track with Merenda’s public defender. In truth, the Army had informed Fladager’s office that it had no intention of producing the soldier, and her prosecutor “failed to disclose” that to the judge or defense camp.
The 5th District Court of Appeals declined to slap Fladager’s office for prosecutorial misconduct, opting for the lesser offense of “prosecutorial error,” but still found that Merenda’s Sixth Amendment right to the attorney of his choice had been violated, and reversed his 25 years-to-life conviction. A new trial is scheduled for February.
Silveira declined to comment on individual cases or performances of her colleagues on the bench.
Ashley, a former prosecutor, became a judge in 1997 at age 37, when she was married to former Judge Michael Cummins. They divorced in 2001, and Michael Cummins lost the district attorney’s race to Fladager in 2006.
Fleming said her office assigns murder cases to the eight criminal judges based on a “random rotation” – random, to prevent attorneys from “judge shopping,” she said, and rotating meaning that judges are not given a break if their murder cases stack up. Exceptions are made for multidefendant trials, she said, because such usually require more time and work.
“Whether you clear (murder) cases or not, you’re still in the rotation to get the next one,” Fleming said.
We continue to see an increase in the case types that require more staff time and resources to process and adjudicate.
Justice Douglas Miller, chairman, California Judicial Council Executive and Planning Committee
In a brief discussion Thursday, Silveira raised the concept of beefing up the criminal division with other judges. But that would result in slower justice for family law, domestic violence and civil decisions, she said, with no guarantee of moving more quickly through murder cases because they require special training for judges and more courtroom security. She added, “I’m not sure the attorneys would be ready.”
Riverside County eased its chronic pileup of criminal cases a few years ago by adding 28 judges, borrowing some from other places and bringing back a few retired judges.
Silveira next month will attend a California Judicial Council conference for presiding judges and court administrators, which often features roundtable discussions with colleagues from like-sized counties. “I will ask about this” backlog issue, she said.
$37,000 Annual cost to house an inmate in Stanislaus County jail
72 Percent of Stanislaus County jail inmates awaiting trial
28 Percent of inmates serving sentences
Also in October, Fleming, Silveira and assistant presiding Judge Ricardo Córdova are scheduled to meet with county administrators and Supervisors Terry Withrow and Bill O’Brien. County Chief Executive Officer Stan Risen said Fladager and Public Defender Tim Bazar have been added to the lineup of participants.
“I think,” Risen said, “we’re going to be a little more focused on diving into efficiency improvements.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390
Stanislaus County Superior Court criminal judges will be up for re-election according to this schedule:
- 2016: Ricardo Córdova and Dawna Reeves
- 2018: Rick Distaso
- 2020: Nancy Ashley, Linda McFadden, Marie Silveira, Scott Steffen and Thomas Zeff
For this 45-county analysis:
▪ Counties that failed to respond to The Modesto Bee’s California Public Records Act request: Alameda, Kern, Monterey, Yolo, Imperial, Madera, Kings, Sutter, Tehama, Lassen, Del Norte and Sierra. Riverside said it needs more time.