At the bench: Judge praises parties’ work on backlog
BARRE — Since Judge Thomas Zonay took over in Washington County criminal court in September, the number of cases pending before the court has fallen sharply.
Last week, The Times Argus reported the court had the largest backlog of cases of any county in the state.
On Wednesday, Zonay held a bench/bar meeting to discuss how the court has been doing in addressing the problem, and asked members of the Department of Corrections, the state’s attorney’s office, and defense attorneys what more could be done to continue to bring those numbers down. The judge invited The Times Argus to the bench meeting.
Zonay said in early September, the same month he started sitting in on cases in Barre, there were 688 cases pending. Of those, 427 were fewer than six months old; 162 were between six months and a year old; and 99 were more than a year old.
As of two weeks ago, Zonay said there are 453 cases pending, a difference of 235. Of those, he said, 279 are fewer than six months old; 107 are between six months and a year old; and 67 are older than a year. Both sets of numbers don’t include violation of probation cases, treatment court, or diversion or arrest warrants, he said.
Zonay credited the attorneys, court staff and corrections with putting in the effort to reduce the case load.
“These numbers don’t just represent cases, they represent people,” Zonay said. “They represent human beings that we have an obligation to get their cases resolved.”
The judge said it was important to get cases taken care of as quickly as possible because “justice is done best when a witness remember things because it’s closer in time.”
This was evident from the recent trial of Dane Martin, 24, acquitted of raping a woman at a party in 2009. Several of the witnesses had to repeatedly look at depositions and statements that they had given in order to refresh their memories since the incident happened years ago.
Zonay asked the group Tuesday whether there were any issues they were having that he or the court workers could address.
Deputy State’s Attorney Megan Campbell said she needs time between felony trials in which there are sensitive witnesses, such as cases involving children, so that she can have time to prepare the witnesses for the trial, as well as time to prepare herself for trials.
“People deserve their cases to go forward, but they also deserve an attorney who is prepared,” she said.
Defense attorney Rosanna Chase said she’s having a communication issue with the state’s attorney’s office. Chase said she had 19 cases set for a pre-trial conference Wednesday, and sometimes there is not enough time in the day to talk to the state about a possible resolution for a case. As a result, they often get pushed off until the jury draw. Chase said it can be frustrating for her clients to sit in the courthouse all day without any movement on their case.
Zonay said the pre-trial conference isn’t the time for parities to meet; rather, it’s a chance to see whether a case is ready for trial. He suggested a possible schedule change where the court would not slate anything the day before a jury draw so that attorneys would have a chance to talk through whether a possible plea agreement could be reached.
In the meantime, Zonay said the court will continue to work toward reducing cases, and he thanked everyone for the work they have done in bringing the number of cases down.
“Will we ever get down to zero for cases over a year old? Statistics say no, but it never hurts to try,” he said.
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