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KDKA Investigates: Pandemic nearly doubled defendants waiting for trials in Allegheny County

KDKA Investigates: Pandemic nearly doubled defendants waiting for trials in Allegheny County
KDKA Investigates: Pandemic nearly doubled defendants waiting for trials in Allegheny County 03:47

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - They say justice delayed is justice denied.

Both here in Pittsburgh and across the country, the pandemic brought the criminal justice system to a virtual standstill, as courtrooms closed to prevent spreading the virus.

The courts are open again and trying to catch up, but the backlog of cases is impacting lives nationwide.

In Allegheny County, the jail is currently full of defendants who've been waiting two to three years to go to trial.

"They have to sit and they have to wait until we're caught up. We're playing catch-up for two years", said local defense attorney Elbert Gray.

While the court system tried to get through COVID with hearings, bench trials and plea bargains over Zoom, those who wanted to put their case before a jury could not get in a courtroom. That includes people accused of serious crimes like homicide, rape and aggravated assault.

Gray currently has six defendants who maintain their innocence still sitting in jail.

"The people who wanted to go jury were just stuck," Gray said. "We've had some cases now in the pipeline that are three or four years old. It's problematic. It's frustrating."

In 2019 before the pandemic hit, Allegheny County's Court of Common Pleas had 872 defendants waiting for more than a year for a trial. That's 11% of the cases on the court's calendar. Last year, that number nearly doubled to 1,419 or 21% of the cases.

And no one is impacted more by the long delays than the victims of violent crime.

"It's a terrible thing that can happen to you. And then to have it delayed for so long," said the Center For Victims President and CEO Laurie MacDonald.

Victims and their families have been waiting through a seemingly never-ending series of delays and postponements, extending the trauma of rape and murder by two, three or even four years in some cases.

MacDonald says her organization provides counseling during the long wait for trials to begin.

"These people have to come back into court, they have to testify, they have to relive the experience of the violence they experienced early on," MacDonald said. "And now it's three years later when people are finally beginning their healing process."

While the pandemic is the proximate cause for the delays, there's also been staffing shortages and high turnover in the district attorney's office as young assistant DAs try to navigate a changing landscape.

Many trials are also now reliant on video and body camera evidence, presenting a challenge to amass that evidence and share it with defendants in jail, causing some to throw in the towel.

"Some people have sat here so long that rather than getting their presumptions of innocence and going to court, they're saying 'listen, get me the best plea bargain you can cause I don't want to sit here another six, seven, eight months because of the backlog.' It's really unfortunate that this is what it's come to," said Gray.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office tells KDKA Investigates they're in the process of hiring more assistant district attorneys and the courts are now attempting to streamline the discovery process to get cases to trial more rapidly.

However, they say it's a big mountain to climb and, in the meantime, victims and defendants are left waiting even longer still.

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