Chief judge wants to give the scheme six to nine months to prove itself.
By Dana Willhoit
BARTOW | Citing a growing backlog of cases, State Attorney Jerry Hill says the current system of assigning one judge to handle all first-degree murder trials in the 10th Judicial Circuit isn't working.
Now, 40 first-degree murder cases are pending in Polk County, and seven in Highlands County, all assigned to Judge J. Michael Hunter.
Hill, in an Oct. 1 letter to Chief Judge J. David Langford, wrote: "Judge Hunter . . . as the only judge to handle and try first-degree murder cases is working as diligently as humanly possible to manage this docket. I made you aware when you became Chief Judge, in January 2007, that it was my belief that we were continuing to create problems in our murder cases by trying to assign all of them to one judge."
The 10th Judicial Circuit, made up of Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, appears to be the only one of Florida's 20 circuits with a capital murder division, in which all first-degree murder trials go before one judge, Hill said.
Chief Judge Ron Herring, who is now retired, created the capital murder division with a single judge. Hill, in his letter to Langford, said, "I am on the record from the beginning of this experiment, in January 2006, advising your predecessor as Chief Judge that I felt this idea would not result in the efficient handling of capital cases. It seems more apparent to me every day that this system is not working."
Judge Langford said Wednesday that he and Hunter are looking into the situation and preparing a letter to reply to Hill.
Langford said there have been an unusually high number of first-degree murder cases this year. According to Hunter, there are 28 new first-degree murder defendants since Jan. 1.
Since Hunter only took over the first-degree murder division in June, Langford said that it would be more fair to evaluate how the system is working after 6 to 9 months.
Hill thinks the problem needs to be fixed sooner, said Chip Thullbery of the State Attorney's Office.
In his letter, Hill noted long delays in trials. "My prosecutors routinely have to tell victims' families in the days following a homicide, that they should expect to wait a minimum of 18 months to 2 years before they can expect a trial."
In Polk, trial dates have been set in only 22 of the 40 cases. Those defendants with trial dates set were indicted between October 2004 and June 2006.
Besides being hard on victim's families, Hill said, the longer it takes for a case to go to trial, the more likely it is that witnesses will leave the area, or that their memories will fade.
Some defense lawyers, however, say that first-degree murder cases simply take longer to prepare.
"In cases where the state attorney has made the decision to seek the death penalty, they need to just be prepared for the fact that those cases may take 18 months to two years to properly be prepared for trial," Bartow lawyer Bob Norgard said. "Death cases are different than cases where they're not seeking death and that is just the way it is."
Also, Norgard said, "In the abstract, I don't disagree with Jerry's request for more judges in the homicide division." However, he said, "What Jerry also needs to understand is that there's a shortage of judges. Our circuit has consistently asked that they be allocated more judges. There is a shortage of judicial manpower all around. If you devote more manpower to murder cases than you take more manpower away from other cases."
In his letter, Hill did not suggest a solution other than to say that more than one judge is needed to handle first-degree murder cases.
Dana Willhoit can be reached at email@example.com or 863-533-9079.