Delayed justice for victims, families of violent crime during the pandemic

Wednesday, August 12, 2020
In pandemic, justice is delayed for victims of violent crimes
In pandemic, justice is delayed for victims of violent crimes

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Attorneys say it typically takes a year or two for a criminal case to go to a jury trial.

But because of the pandemic, there is a backlog.

The Wake County's District Attorney Office said victims and their families could have to wait an extra six to 12 months for justice.

The family of 18-year-old Desmond Jenkins has been waiting for a year.

The college-bound Sanderson High School basketball player was gunned down just steps from his home in Raleigh after a night out with friends last August.

Normally, each week his mother, Sherri Jenkins, visits his gravesite.

But on Monday's anniversary, Jenkins told ABC11 that it was too painful.

"It was traumatic for me felt like I was reliving what happened," Jenkins said. "I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about it all night. Just thinking about him all day."

Elijah Umelo, 19, and 45-year-old Roland Lacure are charged with Desmond's death and have remained in custody since October.

Jenkins said the Wake County's District Attorney Office warned her that when the courts shut down in March in response to the pandemic, it created a backlog in scheduling trials.

"I have anxiety," Jenkins said. "I have fear on what the integrity of the evidence will be. I wonder if witness recollection will be the same. I don't feel it's acceptable to have people waiting on hold and not knowing what the end result will be."

District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told ABC11 that she shares the frustration that families and victims have.

"This is something we in the judicial branch have not seen in 100 years," Freeman said. "We try to be as open and transparent with victims' families as we can be. Sometimes that transparency is to tell them that we simply don't know."

Freeman said that right now, 95 defendants are awaiting a jury trial for a total of 65 homicides.

Half of those homicides, she said, are at least a year or two old.

Under normal circumstances, Freeman said they typically try one or two murder cases a month.

Adding to some of the backlog is the testing of forensic evidence and attorneys' abilities to get access to clients in jail.

Freeman also said Wake County has 42 assistant district attorneys. She said there will need to be more staff, more judges and more resources added to tackle the backlog.

Jenkins would like the courts to explore other options during this pandemic such as remote jury trials.

But Freeman has concerns.

"The right to confront your accusers. The right to cross-examine. A right to be tried by a jury of your peers and there's really no precedent at this point by the courts that makes it clear that we can do these things remotely," Freeman stated.

As Jenkins' fight for justice lingers, she uses her son's legacy as hope.

"He lived his life to the fullest and we have to do that," she said. "Each, every day is a gift."

The motive behind Desmond's killing has not been made public.

Jenkins has started a scholarship fund for student-athletes to honor her son.

In a statement, the Durham District Attorney's Office released the following statement and the details below on the steps it has taken to address pending cases.

Serious, violent crimes are always the priority of this Office and COVID-19 has not changed that. The DA's Office is still in court every day working on these cases. While we are currently unable to hold jury trials, our support staff continue to process evidence in pending violent crime cases and our prosecutors continue to negotiate and secure pleas.

Many serious offenses are ultimately resolved in Superior Court, where caseloads have not had to be reduced to the same extent as some busier courts in order to ensure proper social distancing. In addition to prosecuting these cases in Superior Court, our staff have also been able to resolve some cases in District Court when appropriate. This allows for sanctions and rehabilitation to be put in place sooner and victims to see resolution in their cases faster.

  • We held an informational session in July for the families of victims in our pending homicide cases. At a DA's Office Town Hall in January, DA Deberry publicly committed to holding sessions for families ahead of quarterly Homicide Status Conferences, which are administrative court settings to go over the status of every pending homicide case. We've heard from families that Homicide Status Conference can be hard for them. It's very quick and procedural. Often families leave feeling confused and like neither they nor their loved one were acknowledged in the way they deserve. We had hoped to hold our first family session in April but COVID-19 had other plans, so our first session was in July. DA Deberry discussed how the pandemic is affecting court operations and how homicide cases progress from incident to court. The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham spoke about the important support services they offer in and out of court, and we took questions from families.
  • Separately, our Special Victims Unit has made additional efforts to be in contact with victims in pending domestic violence cases given the sensitive nature of those cases. This has involved calling more than 400 victims with court dates this summer to discuss the status of their case and whether they continue to experience abuse, current court operations, and local domestic violence resources. They have also held open office hours where victims can come in for socially-distanced meetings to discuss their cases.
  • Victims in all types of pending cases have also been sent letters from DA Deberry about what to expect from the court process during the pandemic and who to contact should they have any questions.