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DA office weighed down by case backlog

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Sep. 27, 2022 - 5:57 PM

DA office weighed down by case backlog

The Newnan Times-Herald

Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney John “Herb” Cranford addressed the Rotary Club of Newnan at their meeting on Friday.

By Laura Camper /

Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Office current caseload is up 256 percent from pre-COVID numbers, the district attorney told Rotary Club of Newnan members at their meeting on Friday.

In December 2019, the office had 4,043 open cases; it currently has 10,355, District Attorney John “Herb” Cranford told the Rotary members.

The Coweta Judicial Circuit covers Carroll, Coweta, Heard, Meriwether, Troup and is the fifth most populous district in the state with the fourth heaviest caseload, he said.

“We actually have more felony cases than DeKalb County does. It’s Fulton County, Cobb County, Gwinnett, us and then DeKalb County,” Cranford said, adding for the last two years, “we’ve been within 100 cases of Gwinnett County.”

The last time the office resolved more cases than it received in a year was in 2011, he said. So the office has been “in the red” for more than a decade, Cranford said.

“That’s just a resource issue, to be honest with you,” he said. “If there are more lawyers, they can review more cases; they can try more cases; they can negotiate more cases.”

Additionally, the office had 29 murder cases in 2021 — the most it’s ever had in a single year.

But much of the dramatic increase is because of the COVID shut down in 2020, he said. The number of cases resolved plummeted during the pandemic, Cranford said.

“That’s simply because the engine of the criminal justice system is the jury trial,” he said. “Ninety percent of cases are resolved by plea, but people aren’t going to plead guilty unless they know a trial is coming down the pike.”

The office has been having a lot of jury trials this year to catch up. Historically, there are about 20 jury trials a year in the circuit. But by Sept. 21 this year, the office had finished 42 trials. Only 11 of those trials didn’t end in conviction. Of those 11, three or four were mistrials that ended when the defendant took a plea deal, Cranford said.

“We’re really focusing on the serious, violent stuff,” he said.

One Rotary member asked with the backlog, should local residents be concerned that some percentage of those cases will never get to trial. Another asked if the jail is overloaded because of the backlog.

Cranford said that the office prioritizes cases by the age of the case, the seriousness of the crime and whether the accused is incarcerated.

“Right now, we only have a few cases left from 2019,” he said. “Every case eventually will be seen but it’s just going to be a longer time to get to it.”

He also said that in the felony cases, which are what his office handles, the majority of those charged are granted a bond and aren’t staying in jail.

“The jail is filled with people either convicted of a misdemeanor sentence,” he said, “and people who don’t have a bond.”

The office is getting to the cases as quickly as possible, but the delay does create problems.

“Delay is almost always in the favor of the defendant,” Cranford said. “You lose track of witnesses. The victim decides they don’t want to prosecute anymore.”

In a recent domestic abuse trial, the victim had reconciled with the accused.

“To say she was a hostile witness to us was an understatement,” Cranford said.

Still the office went forward with the trial because of the seriousness of the crime. Maybe not surprisingly, the trial ended in a not guilty verdict, he said.

How much did the trial cost? asked one of the Rotary members.

Cranford said he didn’t know, but added, “Whatever the cost, I think it’s worth it.”