With the arrest of Scott Peterson, there are now 60 people in Stanislaus County jails either charged with or convicted of murder.
At least two have been there for three years.
Three women and 57 men are on the list. A handful have been convicted and are waiting to be sent to prison, or are attempting to get new trials.
Officials attribute the backlog to a surging population and an unusual number of cases involving multiple defendants.
The backlog exists as the district attorney's office deals with the highest-profile murder case in the nation and faces possible cutbacks because of the state budget crisis.
Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said the office will have to do "the best it can" to keep the Peterson case from delaying other trials, while committing the proper resources to the proceedings.
"Death penalty cases, by their nature, take a long time, and there are a lot of resources put into them," Goold said. "We are hurting for resources just like every agency in the county. But we do the best we can and are always looking for ways to get things done expeditiously."
Defense attorney Robert Chase of Modesto said he is not overly concerned that the Peterson case will further delay pending cases. Chase, who is not involved in the Peterson case, said he will ensure that his clients get the defense to which they're entitled.
"The liberty of my clients is at stake, and we won't tolerate a diminishment of their rights for Scott Peterson," he said.
The attorney said the county court system has dealt with high-profile cases in the past.
"We always have a lot of cases in the pipeline," Chase said. "We live in a community of almost 500,000 people, we have limited courtrooms and our resources are limited. It takes time."
Even so, at least two defendants arrested in 1999 still await trial and have yet to have a preliminary hearing.
Terry Dustin of Gustine and Sean Zunino of Newman are charged in the murder of Santiago Garcia, whose decomposed body was found in June 1999 near the Delta-Mendota Canal.
Last year, an appellate court threw out the pair's first indictment on grounds that the prosecution ordered the court reporter out of the grand jury room during critical portions of the proceedings. The prosecution charged the two men again, and their preliminary hearing is set for May 14.
The wheels have turned slowly for two of Chase's clients: Steven Andrew Kaharik, accused in the July 2000 shooting death of Anthony Zimmerman in a south Modesto alley, and Ramon "Raymond" Chavez, charged in the August 2000 death of Gurmit Singh Bahia during a robbery at Corona Liquors on Crows Landing Road.
Their pretrial hearings were delayed in 2001 when the district attorney seized sensitive files from a Modesto private investigator in a forgery probe. The private investigator had done work for Chase and information pertinent to the murder cases was in a computer hard drive seized in the raid.
Chavez's case was resolved when he pleaded guilty this month in exchange for life without the possibility of parole. He had faced the death penalty.
Kaharik's case has been tied up in a complex discovery process involving two other trials, Chase said, and is set for trial in October.
As time passes in prosecutions, Goold said, there is a danger that a key witness will die or disappear. But he said he knows of no homicide cases in the county that have fallen apart because of delays.
He added that most defendants in murder cases waive their right to have a trial within 60 days of arraignment.
"The stakes are pretty high in murder cases," he said. "A defense attorney doesn't want to hurt a case by pushing it to trial."
Another difficult case involves the nine men arrested after the shooting death of Re-gino Javier Abundis, 23, of Manteca in April 2000. Abundis and two Modesto men went to a home near Keyes to buy a used car and were ambushed at gunpoint, beaten and bound with duct tape. Abundis was shot as he tried to escape.
It's believed to be the most defendants ever in a county murder trial, and to complicate matters, none of the accused speaks English.
The defendants were split into two groups for prosecution, and at the close of a preliminary hearing this month, Judge Edward Lacy Jr. ordered seven to trial on murder charges. Two have pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
Other cases include Steven Lamont Lewis, whom authorities said admitted setting a 1999 care-home fire that killed a Modesto man and left nine people homeless.
Lewis had lived at the Vine Street care home, where many residents suffered from mental disorders. He pleaded guilty to setting the fire, but is trying to withdraw the plea.
Bee Staff Writer Ken Carlson can be reached at 578-2321 or email@example.com.