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DA says no to commissioners’ request

Published 9:12pm Wednesday, March 27, 2013

District Attorney Seth Edwards has declined a request to appear before the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners.

In a 4-3 vote at its March 11 meeting, the board decided to call out Edwards to discuss the length of time some inmates are being held in the Beaufort County Detention Center before going to trial. It’s a problem that some say is the cause of ongoing overcrowding at the jail; its resolution negating the need for a larger detention facility.

At the meeting, Commissioner Hood Richardson claimed the jail’s overcrowding is caused by the DA’s lack of “jail management” and the slow rate at which cases are tried.

Edwards sees things differently.

“Jail management is not in my job description. In my opinion, there should be more people in jail,” Edwards said, adding that it is because of space constraints that bonds are set lower in Beaufort County, which often result in criminals who likely should be held in the jail being released to commit more crimes.

Rather, it is a systemic problem that contributes to some, but not all, of the jail numbers, Edwards said.

“The backlog of cases is a statewide problem and the judicial system has been drastically underfunded for many years. … We’re not perfect by any stretch, but we certainly hold our own compared to other districts around the state,” Edwards said in an interview Wednesday.

While some cases drag out longer because of the State Crime Lab’s backlog of forensic evidence, Richardson’s solution (as stated during the commissioners’ meeting) to use private labs in order to rush the delivery, and therefore the cases, is cost prohibitive, Edwards said. He described a recent murder case in which he received state approval to send four evidence samples to Cellmark (formerly LabCorp) and pay for the forensic analyst’s travel expenses and trial testimony —testimony required by North Carolina law. The total cost to the state was nearly $10,000.

“If there is one thing I can agree with, it is the quicker we can try (defendants), the more money we can save Beaufort County. … To be fair to the victims and defendants, I wish we could try them all within six months,” Edwards said.

State budget cuts in the past several years have not assisted with the prosecution’s pace: Edwards has had to scale down his number of victim/witness legal assistants by three employees; in Martin County, he’s had to cut hours for the public so staff can focus on casework exclusively.

While Edwards said that he understands the need to be frugal when contemplating a new detention center, pointing the finger at prosecutorial caseload is not the way to justify a smaller facility, or not building a new facility at all.

“I understand cost concerns — they are real concerns,” he said. “But overcrowding is not the only issue with that jail.”

In a letter to County Manager Randell Woodruff, Edwards points out that he believes the new public-defenders office slated for Washington will do much to reduce the jail population, as court-appointed lawyers will be able to visit inmates more quickly and approach the DA’s office when they have a case to move.

In the same letter, Edwards declined the commissioners’ request to appear before them, saying he had “no intention of entering the bully pulpit of Hood Richardson.”

“I think (Richardson) is trying to get the spotlight off the commissioners and on to someone else,” Edwards said.

To read the full text of Edwards’ letter to Randell Woodruff, Beaufort County manager, click here: EDWARDS LETTER

 

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