CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Prosecutors believe it will now take six years before a murder suspect faces a jury in Mecklenburg County. That wait is more than double what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. WCNC Charlotte found Mecklenburg County is in worse shape than most jurisdictions because of severe understaffing.
Still no justice from 2019
Teresa Armstrong snuggles up close to her daughter, Star Ford, on the couch in their living room. The two hold hands with tears streaming down their faces. They are surrounded by pictures of the loved one they lost – Teresa’s oldest daughter Deja Sutton was murdered in 2019.
“It’s hard to think that my sister is gone. I think that she’s just on a flight somewhere and she’s coming back one day,” Ford said.
“I just want justice for my baby," Armstrong added. "I want justice for my baby.”
The 19-year-old was stabbed to death in May 2019. Police charged her ex-boyfriend with murder that same day.
“Immediately I knew it was him that had done it," Armstrong said through tears. "The autopsy report said she was stabbed over 40 times. Over 40 times from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet."
It happened almost four years ago but there is still no trial date set.
“Years go by and you’re just waiting for answers," Star said.
After not hearing from the prosecutors' office for more than a year, Armstrong told WCNC Charlotte's Michelle Boudin she finally reached out to them a few weeks ago.
"I called and was like, 'What’s going on? Where are we at?' and she said, 'It's probably not going to be until 2025. We're in 2023 and were just now starting to do cases from 2017,'" Star recalled.
Extensive court delays
“That wait for closure — waiting to hear about next steps... as that wait gets longer, people's level of confidence in the court system to do what it's designed to do starts to break down, Mecklenburg County’s District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said. "We have seen far more of that than I would have hoped for in this jurisdiction.”
The DA said he has been fighting to get more staff in his office since 2019, begging the state legislature to fund more positions and pushing for a systemwide overhaul.
“People will say this is a public safety conversation, as far as I’m concerned, this is a quality of life conversation, this is an economic development conversation," he said. "I have seen corporations that have decided to go elsewhere because they are fearful of the impact of decreased public safety will have on a community. I do not want to see that happen in Charlotte.”
The DA said the problem starts with the caseload his office handles.
“It’s because we’re one of the few DA offices in the country that handles not only felonies and misdemeanors but also juvenile cases," Merriweather said. "We’re doing all of it with far fewer resources than what exists in other places."
The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys is a national organization that estimates a community the size of Charlotte should have 130 prosecutors. The office only has 85.
"You’re in an awful place," the association’s CEO David LaBahn said bluntly. "There’s no quick fix."
“It’s incredibly frustrating," Merriweather said. "I think it should be raising red flags all across the state.”
WCNC Charlotte took the DA’s concerns to North Carolina state legislators. Rep. Terry Brown, who is the House Democratic Whip and represents District 92 in southwest Mecklenburg County, said he’s going to push for a review of the entire court system.
"I'm looking forward to going back and talking with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle," he said. "Hopefully get something done this year on a study, and then after that, get results and move forward from there."
Brown said there is state money that could fund adding much-needed new positions.
Mecklenburg County's staffing shortages
LaBahn said Charlotte’s staffing woes are similar to what Milwaukee, Wisconsin, faced until recently. That office got money for 18 new prosecutors after an overworked staffer mistakenly set low bail for the man who days after being released on bail killed six people when he plowed his car into a parade.
“That office had been working on that issue for years just like Charlotte [and] Mecklenburg has been and nobody wants to pay attention," he explained. “So it literally took a tragedy to make change"
For Deja Sutton’s family, the wait is agonizing.
“When is this gonna be over with?" Armstrong said. "I want to be done but I want justice served."
“Years go by and you’re just waiting for answers because nothing is happening. We're just waiting and waiting. All we can do is wait but we just want justice for my sister," Ford added. "That's a long time in our hearts. It’s a very long time."
Part of the problem Merriweather is trying to solve is pay. In Mecklenburg County, the starting salary is $52,000. In Atlanta, the pay is almost double.
As of publication, Mecklenburg County had hundreds of pending cases still open: 112 homicides, 187 non-fatal shooting cases such as armed robberies, 215 repeat offender and habitual offender trials, and 150 sex assault cases.
Contact Michelle Boudin at email@example.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.