Hendersonville – The wheels of justice are spinning slower and more remotely during the pandemic. District Attorney Greg Newman hopes more people will be willing to serve on juries to settle serious criminal cases as the new year progresses and Coronavirus cases subside.
The capacity limit is 25 defendants in a courtroom per session, in mornings and afternoons, Newman said in a recent interview with the Tribune. He is D.A. in District 42 (formerly 29B) for Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties.
“The chief justice (Democrat Cheri Beasley) shut us down in March from doing jury trials,” he said. Exceptions were for such “emergencies” as a probable cause hearing, for detaining a defendant in custody. Then in June, “we were allowed to resume some district court functions.”
A recent breakthrough was in last month, he said. “Safety plans were approved to hold jury trials again.”
No criminal trials have been held with juries yet, in the local district. Too many people COVID-19 germ-conscious and thus reluctant to serve on a jury in closed quarters. “The primary issue now is people feeling uneasy about being around other people, in a jury,” Newman said. “That’s very understandable.”
He has a New Year’s resolution for local courts. “I hope vaccine distribution helps ease anxiety and reluctance of people to serve on a jury.” That could take months into spring or even summer, based on health estimates on widespread vaccinations.
A criminal jury trial in Charlotte early this month reached deliberations, Newman noted. “But one juror tested positive for the virus. The judge had to declare a mistrial.”
Settling More Out of Court
However, many minor criminal or civil cases are getting taken care of, Newman said. Three weeks ago, a civil case went to a jury trial in Henderson County. “It was a one-day trial,” he said. “The jury’s only issue was to determine how much to pay in accident damages.”
A greater proportion of cases than usual are getting settled out of court to avoid in-person contact, with prosecutors negotiating with defense lawyers. “We’re slowly and surely resolving cases.” Still, he is concerned “we have many cases pending, and some defendants in jail” awaiting trial.
Defendants can waive a jury trial and let the judge decide their fate. But Newman said few are doing so, such as in “serious drug trafficking cases.” They figure they stand a better chance with a jury of peers than the judge, Newman said.
This is especially so “when a significant prison sentence seems the likely outcome, if charges are violent crimes, or if they have lengthy criminal records such as in narcotic or property crimes.”
Some minor and traffic offenses are getting resolved—though more of them than usual are getting continued into late winter—and soon into a “glut into the spring” when vaccinations are anticipated.
Some defendants are avoiding traffic court by pleading guilty online and paying online. Newman hopes that the number rises to ease the court docket. If they hire an attorney, that lawyer can plea bargain with prosecutors ahead of the court date and resolve the matter, Newman said.
However, the defendant cannot call or visit the D.A. office to negotiate on his/her own. “You have to do that through a lawyer. I encourage defense lawyers to talk with us and negotiate. Several have taken advantage of that option.”
Defense attorneys’ caseloads seem lower than usual during this pandemic, Newman said. “It hurts their business when there are limitations on how often they can get to court.”
“Everybody desires that we get back to some form of normalcy,“ Newman said.
Social restrictions on courts across the state might be relaxed now that Republican Paul Newby is the new Supreme Court chief justice. The associate justice unseated Beasley Nov. 3. Beasley conceded Nov. 11 after four recounts of their race — the final one certified in N.C., Newman said.
Newby is “a good man,” Newman said. “He may have a different philosophy [than Beasley] about conducting our trials. The chief justice decides” such matters.
Three Murder Cases are Pending
The most high-profile of three pending murder cases in District 42 is of Phillip Michael Stroupe II. He is charged with kidnapping Thomas A. “Tommy” Bryson, age 68, near Bryson’s home in Mills River while fleeing a man-hunt, then fatally shooting Bryson in a cornfield in Avery’s Creek. That was in July of 2017.
The Bryson family has told the Tribune of the lingering anguish since then until justice is served in court. D.A. Newman expressed sorrow over the legal delays of that case, which are “toughest on the (victim’s) family.”
Newman said, “We’ve had the case ready for trial three times. We were ready to go. Both sides were on board for September. But pandemic restrictions curtailed that.”
Earlier, there were “issues with witnesses,” then last year the trial judge removed one of the two defense lawyers over “an ethical issue,” Newman explained. “The new attorney had to be given time to adequately prepare.”
The other two capital cases involve the alleged murder of girlfriends. Terry Jason Brank is accused of killing Laura Cox in July 2018, near Crab Creek Road in Henderson County. Jeremy Bradshaw of Columbus is accused of killing Karen Denise Je