Here, Now

Quest for justice resumes as courtrooms open doors

The U.S. judicial system is designed for face-to-face experiences, but the pandemic changed that dynamic. As courts return to open sessions, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys work to dig out of the deep backlog.

Twice a month, Clydia Davis sits down at her computer for a Zoom meeting that, even in 2021, most people can’t fathom. Usually there are about a dozen people – mostly women – in attendance. Each has lost a child to homicide.

“We’ve all bonded really well,” Davis said. “Sometimes we just sit there and cry with each other over Zoom. We send virtual hugs.” 

DonQwavias “Qway” Davis was the second oldest of five children and the most athletic. He loved basketball, rugby and football, and had planned to play college football until he tore his ACL during his junior year in high school.

“He was good at everything he touched,” Davis said, “and he got really sad for awhile because that interfered with his chances to play senior year and get into college.”

The knee injury meant her son delayed applying to college until he was 22. He had just submitted an application to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte when he was shot and killed near the campus. Her son died May 1, 2019. 

Davis called the shooting a misunderstanding with a friend of a friend. The suspect fled the scene and the city, but police arrested Javier Concepcion-Perez the next day and charged him with murder.

Davis was at Mecklenburg County District Court when Concepcion-Perez was arraigned. She was in court in November 2020 when the defendant rejected a plea deal. Since then, the judicial process has stalled. There is no trial date.

“It’s a waiting game now because of the pandemic and you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s just so much anxiety and emotional stress that comes with the waiting,” Davis said. “Every time you get a call from the DA’s office, you see that number come up and you think, ‘Oh, God, what now?’ You’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen with the person who killed your child.”

DonQwavias “Qway” Davis was the second oldest of five children and the most athletic. He loved basketball, rugby and football. His mother, Clydia Davis, has been waiting for more than a year for the trial date of the man accused of killing her son. Left: Davis attends senior night with DonQwavias at Porter Ridge High School in Indian Trail, N.C. Right: DonQwavias plays rugby in Charlotte, N.C. (Photos courtesy of Davis)

The courts in Charlotte, North Carolina – as in countless cities across the nation – have been operating on a skeletal basis since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Many are starting to reopen. 

Bill Raftery, a senior knowledge and information services analyst with the National Center for State Courts, said from March to May 2020, all 50 states were affected. “Every state was dealing with statewide orders that limited court proceedings to emergency and urgent,” he said. “Each state defined those terms differently as to what was urgent but across the board, very few courts were operating.”

“It has been one of the most challenging years I can even imagine,” said Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer B. Merriweather III, who is especially concerned about the domestic violence cases that have been halted. “Our experience tells us those cases can graduate into homicides if we don’t have intervention, so we’ve tried to make sure we have as much contact as possible with those folks, and we’re connecting them to community resources.”

With the spread of coronavirus infections slowing around November 2020, Mecklenburg County tried to restart criminal jury trials, but one ended in a mistrial over concerns about a juror’s exposure to Covid-19 and other delays.

A judge in Denver declared a mistrial after members of the defense team in a murder trial were suspected of having Covid-19. 

In Indianapolis, Marion County Presiding Superior Court Judge Heather Welch said her county managed to hold about a dozen in-person trials from August to November 2020 because of plexiglass partitions encasing the jury box and rearranged furniture. 

“It’s really tough for both sides, victims and alleged defendants,” Welch said, “so we’re all going to have to work together and buckle down to get all of these cases tried.”

Steve Quattlebaum, vice president of the American Board of Trial Advocates, served as the organization’s Covid-19 task-force chair and helped create guidelines for conducting civil jury trials during the pandemic. (Photo by Cindy Monchilov/Camera Work Photography)

Steve Quattlebaum, vice president of the American Board of Trial Advocates and Covid-19 task-force chair, created guidelines for conducting civil jury trials during the pandemic. His recommendations range from remote hearings to impaneling extra alternate jurors as safeguards against potential mistrials. 

As jurisdictions start to bring people back to courthouses, Quattlebaum said criminal cases will take priority over civil, and judges will become inundated. However, there can’t be too many trials at the same time because of continued social distancing.

In Charlotte, Merriweather worried that it could take five to 10 years for the city and county to work their way out of the case backlog. The delays, he said, will make building cases – and winning them – tougher.

“It’s terrible – people become harder to find. There are people who have lost jobs and that can mean their ability and willingness to engage with the justice system changes,” Merriweather said. “It’s definitely something we worry about.”

Kathleen Nicolaides, a criminal justice professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a former federal prosecutor, said the courts backlog is tough for prosecutors, too. 

“The Constitution and Bill of Rights protect the defendant, and the defense can take advantage of all of that,” Nicolaides said. “There’s a whole new way to game the system.”

Former federal prosecutor Kathleen Nicolaides believes the courts backlog provides defendants “a whole new way to game the system.” (Photo courtesy of Cindy Salvia)

Tampa defense attorney Eddie Suarez said he worries about getting witnesses to talk amid the pandemic. “There’s an intangible quality when you meet people face to face. You get more done,” he said. “In my experience, it’s also easier for a prosecutor to make concessions to get us closer to an agreement when you meet in person.”

Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that it is still challenging to restore the courts to full operations with the coronavirus still spreading in many communities. But the U.S. criminal justice system is based on all parties gathering in the same room at the same time, so defendants have the opportunity to confront their accusers.

As difficult as the delayed court proceedings are for Clydia Davis to endure, she wants those trial hearings to happen. She’s hoping her next conversation with someone in the Mecklenburg County district attorney’s office will be about an actual trial date.

Until then, Davis continues to rely on the other parents for comfort during their Zoom meetings. “One little thing we do, we’ve got a list of each other’s kids’ favorite meals, and we cook that meal for our family in honor of them,” said Davis. “It’s all about going through the process. I just wish we knew when the process was going to end.”

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Alex Charner is a Caracas-born, Atlanta-based illustrator and communication trainer. As a student and artist in Dalvero Academy, Alex was part of the team of artists who documented the rebuilding and launch of the Charles W. Morgan wooden whaling ship at Mystic Seaport. Trained as a réportage or on-the-spot illustrator, Alex sees drawing as a powerful language to document events, tell stories and build connections.

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