Man accused of killing motorcyclist while drunk walks free as pandemic delays justice for widow

HARNETT COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- A Harnett County man, Michael Reaves, was killed in a motorcycle accident nearly three years ago but, to this day, the man charged with the crime continues to walk free.

His widow, Sherri Reaves, says she is beyond frustrated waiting for justice.

"Just sitting and waiting, it's not acceptable anymore. By the time he does go to court, is it even going to mean anything to him at that point? It happened so long ago," Reaves said.

It will be three years this December when Sherri lost her husband. He was on his way home from work, on his motorcycle, when police say Nicholas Craig Morris slammed his car into her husband's bike, killing him.

"He went left of center. He hit my husband head-on," Sherri said.

At the time of the accident, Morris was driving on a suspended license. Shortly after the fatal crash, Morris was charged with felony death by motor vehicle and driving while impaired.

"We actually did have a trial date on the calendar, and so we were waiting for that, but then the COVID stuff started," Reaves said.

The pandemic delayed not only this trial, but put a stop to all jury trials in Harnett and Lee counties. Meanwhile, Morris has not stayed out of trouble.

"Since my husband's accident, Nick has been charged with several additional DUIs," Reaves said.

According to court records, Morris is facing several charges of driving while impaired and drug possession across Harnett, Cumberland and Pender counties.

"For him just to walk around and keep putting people in danger, it's just not acceptable," Reaves said.

She's frustrated. And now, 21 months after the pandemic started, there's still no trial date set.

"They're telling me, 'we really don't have a plan and we don't know how long this is going to be,'" she said.

The District Attorney of Harnett and Lee counties, Suzanna Matthews, provided a statement:

"The court system has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, both across the state and locally. The case you are inquiring about is not isolated; rather, cases across the board have been delayed in our district. The result is a backlog for justice-involved individuals, both defendants, and victims. We did resume jury trials in our district in June, although they have again been suspended. The trials we have conducted were done while observing strict COVID-19 protocols, including distancing and masks. While the logistics of a socially distanced trial were unusual, the trials proceeded to verdict without issue. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have held one jury trial in Harnett County and two in Lee County. My office stands ready to conduct jury trials and we continue to work to prepare our cases for trial when the time comes. I am hopeful that we will be able to resume trials in the very near future."

It's not just Matthews' district facing delays in the courtroom. Across North Carolina, 111,791 criminal superior court cases are awaiting trial.

The average case has been pending for about 300 days or 10 months. However, in Harnett County the average wait is even longer at 560 days, that's the third-longest wait in the state. Twenty percent of the county's cases have been pending for more than two years. This wait allows offenders like Morris to re-offend and leaves victims waiting for closure.

"It just seems like there isn't any end in sight," Reaves said. With no trial date set and another year without her husband, Reaves is losing faith in the justice system.

"It's important to be able to see justice, it's important to have a sense of closure, and right now, you know, the Harnett County court system is failing, they need to do something different," she said.

Now the decision to hold trials falls on the judges. So while dozens of jury trials have happened in counties such as Wake, Durham and Cumberland. Harnett and Lee still only report a total of three. There's only one superior court judge in that district, we reached out to find out what's behind the delay, but have not heard back.

We reached out to the North Carolina Administrative Offices of the Courts to see what can be done in counties like Harnett and Lee where jury trials are not happening, and the Director, Judge Andrew T. Heath, provided this statement:

"Because the COVID situation has improved statewide, the North Carolina Court System is no longer operating under emergency COVID orders. Chief Justice Newby recognized that the COVID conditions vary from county to county and has encouraged our state's local court leaders to work together to determine what safety precautions are necessary based on their local situation as they resume normal court operations. The Administrative Office of the Courts, under Chief Justice Newby's direction, continues to provide all 100 counties with personal protective equipment, cleaning equipment, temporary workers, overtime pay, and emergency judges to position our court officials so they can safely convene all court proceedings. The Chief Justice has consistently supported our judges and court officials in all their efforts to safely reconvene jury trials to meet the important constitutional mandate to keep courts open and to administer justice without delay."
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