Jury trials increase more than 40 percent in Boone County

Monday, October 27, 2008 | 5:03 p.m. CDT; updated 10:58 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 27, 2008

COLUMBIA —The upcoming trial schedule for the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office reads like a police blotter listing only the most serious crimes: Parents charged with killing their 2-year-old son; a man accused of shooting his brother-in-law in a McDonald's parking lot; a 22-year-old who allegedly shot and killed a man in a drug setup; and five suspects in a home invasion shooting death.

Overall, there are 13 pending murder trials headed for the Boone County Circuit Court, the most the county has ever seen, according to Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight. Such cases will ensure that the court stays busy for the foreseeable future.

In fact, it's already been a busy year for the court. There were 56 jury trials in Boone County Circuit Court through September, a 44 percent increase on a year ago, according to statistics provided by the Boone County Court Administrator's Office.

There were more jury trials in the first nine months of 2008 than in any of the past five years. If the current pace keeps up, which is not guaranteed, the court will host 74 jury trials for the year, by far the highest total in recent history.

The spike in jury trials means more work for an already overburdened court system. More than anything else that reaches the court, jury trials require a significant commitment of time and resources from court offices, attorneys, litigants and jurors.

What's less clear is why there has been such a significant increase this year. The possible causes cited by those who work in the court are as diverse as the crimes going to trial.

Some say the increase signifies nothing more than the cyclical nature of the number of cases brought before a jury. In his time as a Circuit Judge, Gene Hamilton has seen the number of jury trials go up and down with no discernible trends. Data from the past five years seems to support this: Jury trials increased significantly between 2003 and 2004, reached a plateau for a couple of years, and then dropped in 2006.  

But others point out that there have also been some unique developments in 2008 that help to explain the change. For example, of the 56 jury trials through September, six were change-of-venue cases. "That's unusual," Boone County Court Administrator Kathy Lloyd said.

Although Boone County is reimbursed for the expenses it incurs from these change-of-venue trials, it still must commit time and space at the courthouse to host them. The county generally attracts more change-of-venue cases because "we have a good facility," Knight said. When a Boone County trial requires a change of venue, however, the trial is still held at the Boone County courthouse, and an out-of-county jury is brought in. This is not the case in many other jurisdictions.

Also, the county's trial capacity increased in 2008 because of changes at the circuit judge level, Lloyd said. A Missouri Senate bill passed in 2003 and effective in 2007 allocated an additional circuit judge to the 13th Judicial Circuit, which includes Boone and Callaway counties. Judge Jodie Asel was elected to fill the position.

Another judicial change that occurred in 2007, but had more of an impact in 2008, was the election of former Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane to circuit judge. Because Crane had served as a prosecutor in the years prior to his election, he was unable to hear a number of cases in 2007 in which he'd been involved, Lloyd said. His criminal jury trial caseload therefore increased from five in 2007 to 11 in 2008.

As much as these factors may help to explain the increase in jury trials, those who work in the court agree that the single-most important cause was the spike in crime in 2007, which started to work its way through the courts this year. "Police are busy when crimes are committed," Knight said. "We become busy two or three months down the road."

According to the Columbia Police Department's 2007 Uniform Crime Report, violent crime — including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — increased by 34 percent in 2007.

Much of the increase in jury trials this year was from serious criminal cases, which went up by 50 percent, according to the court data. "The more serious a crime is, the greater the likelihood it will go to trial," Knight said. Among this year's trials were six murder cases and 12 cases involving serious drug charges.

Attorneys say there is not much that can be done to cut down on the number of cases going to jury trial. Defendants have a constitutional right to a jury trial in criminal cases unless the maximum prison sentence for the crime is less than six months. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."

So if a defendant doesn't plead guilty, the only options are to dismiss the case or to take it to trial. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors say that if there is sufficient evidence for their side, it's their duty to take the case to trial.

"If people are coming to me and saying they didn't do it, I'm not going to say 'I don't have the time to protect your liberty,'" Boone County Public Defender Kevin O'Brien said. "It's my job to make sure that innocent people aren't wrongfully imprisoned."

The one option both sides do use to avoid a jury trial is the plea agreement, in which a defendant pleads guilty, usually to a reduced charge, in exchange for a lighter sentence. Attorneys estimate that they strike a plea agreement in more than 90 percent of all cases. Without this alternative, they say, the criminal justice system would be overwhelmed with more cases than it could handle.

"The majority of all cases we have are resolved through plea agreements," Knight said. "We would need 1,000 prosecutors in our office if we didn't have plea negotiations, just like any other prosecutor's office."

Those involved in the court credit Boone County for getting through trials much faster than other jurisdictions in the state and beyond. "When we say we're going to take a 15-minute recess, we take a 15-minute recess," Hamilton said. "We don't take two hours." He added that trials in Boone County often start early in the day, end late and even run into the weekend. The longest trial in Boone County history lasted 12 days, Knight said.

Despite the efficiency of the Boone County Circuit Court, the increase in jury trials is still putting added pressure on every level of the court system. One outcome is an increase in expenses for the county. Jury trials cost more than other court proceedings. There are court-related costs for staff and space, as well as a number of jury-related costs. For example, each juror is compensated $21 per day for their service, $78 for lodging, $40 for food and varying amounts for parking and mileage, Lloyd said.

"We are considering the implications of this, in terms of its effects on the jury system and the costs associated with it," Lloyd said. The court has started to shift money from other areas in order to pay for increased jury costs, but has not overrun its total budget yet. She could not provide figures for the total cost of jury trials this year.

For its part, the Boone County Circuit Clerk's Office has started paying out compensatory time to clerks who are assigned to jury trials, because the state doesn't cover overtime expenses that are often associated with jury trials, Circuit Clerk Christy Blakemore said.

For attorneys, this year's spike in jury trials means more work for offices that are already inundated with cases. The 12 attorneys who work on criminal cases for the Prosecuting Attorney's Office handle an average of 600 cases per attorney per year, Knight said. Just one jury trial can consume a significant amount of prosecutors' time. The more complex cases can take two to three months of preparation, he said. 

The caseload problems at the Boone County Public Defender's office have existed for a number of years, but have recently become more pronounced. The 12 defense attorneys in the office manage a total of 375 to 400 cases per year, O'Brien said.

"The public defender's office needs to try cases, and if we deplete our resources so much that we can't try cases, that's a problem," O'Brien said. On Oct. 1, the office implemented a new rule that allows it to reject a certain type of probation case. O'Brien said this change was not directly related to the increase in jury trials, but he said the extra work the trials bring certainly has not helped the situation.

Yet despite the extra work he and others involved in the court have faced, O'Brien doesn't think the increase in jury trials is ultimately a bad thing. In fact, he said, it just shows that the criminal justice system in Boone County is working.

"I think jury trials are a sign of a healthy court system," O'Brien said. "If people can catch a glimpse of that and can weigh in, I think that's tremendously helpful."

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