Crime & Courts

Facing severe backlog of long-delayed criminal cases, Alaska attorneys try a new strategy

State prosecutors and defense attorneys gathered in front of Superior Court Judge William Morse for a calendar hearing to schedule some of a backlog of cases for trial on March 5, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

In an Anchorage courtroom on Monday, a dozen or more prosecutors and defense attorneys met in a first-time effort to clear a backlog of criminal cases that have languished for years without resolution.

The pileup of old cases has gotten so severe that representatives from the district attorney's office as well as the Alaska Public Defender Agency and Office of Public Advocacy, the two agencies that represent indigent defendants, formed a "pretrial delay working group" to try to move cases along, said Anchorage district attorney Richard Allen.

Monday was the first time the group met in court to try to move old cases toward a decision. The idea was to set new dates for trial.

About 40 felony cases fit the bill, Allen said. The list was whittled down to about 15 cases when some resolved.

Some have been pending for five years or more, like the homicide case filed against Gina Virgilio in June of 2012. Virgilio is accused of pouring gasoline around her sleeping boyfriend and then setting their East Anchorage apartment aflame. Her case is currently set for a May trial.

At Monday's hearing, attorneys talked about low-level felony cases older than 15 months, some of which were first filed in 2014. Among them: Felony charges against marijuana entrepreneur and former Anchorage TV reporter Charlo Greene in 2015.

Judge William Morse speaks with an attorney Monday during a calendar hearing on March 5, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Delays  have real consequences for everyone involved, attorneys say: State cases "rarely get better with time," as victims or witnesses become harder to locate, Allen said. It's also bad for defendants presumed innocent until proven guilty, who live with unresolved cases hanging over their heads. Some who can't make bail stay in jail, defense attorneys say.

Plus, Alaska's constitution guarantees crime victims the right to a "timely disposition" of a case following a defendant's arrest.

But that doesn't always happen, says Taylor Winston of the Office of Victims' Rights.

A trial date may be set and then reset 14 or 15 times, said Winston. The backlog includes cases in which charges were filed five, six or even seven years ago but haven't gone to trial or ended in a plea agreement. Victims' can't move on with their lives with a trial looming in the future, Winston said.

At the hearing, held in front of Anchorage Superior Court presiding Judge William Morse, attorneys explained the circumstances that had thus far delayed trial. A defendant out on bail who went missing for a time. Hundreds of pages of evidence and six CDs of data to be considered; a defendant's pending heart transplant. The difficulty of wrangling the schedules of 30 witnesses for a trial.

There were some long sighs and silences. Morse said he'll bring in extra judges to get the work done if he needed to. Then more dates were set — these ones firm.