Trials losing appeal locally in judicial system

Local courts, like those on the state and national levels, saw a historically low number of civil and criminal cases make it to trial in 2013.

Of the thousands of civil and criminal cases filed in both Marietta Municipal Court and Washington County Common Pleas Court last year, only 16 cases went to a jury trial.

There were 272 felony indictments and seven criminal trials in Washington County Common Pleas Court in 2013. That is two fewer than in 2012.

In Marietta Municipal Court, an even smaller number of juries were seated. Only six traffic and criminal cases were tried throughout the years, said Jason Hamilton, Marietta Municipal Court administrator.

More than 8,000 traffic cases and more than 2,000 criminal cases were filed in municipal court in 2013. However, that number also includes a sizable chunk of minor misdemeanors, such as seat belt tickets, which are not eligible for a jury trial, said Hamilton.

In criminal cases, stronger evidence compiled, laws that cut back on prison sanctions and increased assurances going into sentencing hearings have made defendants more likely to plead rather than try their luck with a jury.

“A lawyer’s job is to resolve a conflict before taking it trial if it can be done fairly,” said Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Rings.

Defendants are more likely than ever to plead guilty to charges, largely in part to a change in the law which has made it highly unlikely that fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders will be sent to prison, said Rings.

“If you know there’s virtually no chance you’re going to prison, you’re more inclined to plead,” he said.

Sentencing agreements, which are common in Marietta Municipal Court and used by Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Randall Burnworth, have also made clients more willing to strike up plea agreements, said Washington County Public Defender Ray Smith.

“They know what they can get, and they have some involvement in the case,” said Smith of the criminal defendants.

With agreed dispositions, the two attorneys will agree on a plea and a sentencing recommendation and the judge will approve it, said Burnworth. However the judge is not held to the sentencing agreement should any unforeseen circumstances arise, such as unknown criminal charges in another state, he said.

Law enforcement also seems to be collecting more evidence, said Rings.

“What good does it to have a trial when the evidence is all right there?” he asked.

Technology has also contributed, said Smith.

“You go steal from Walmart and you’ve got over 100 cameras pointed at you. And (OVI) cases are all video too,” he said.

The 2.6 percent of felony cases that went to trial in Washington County Common Pleas Court in 2013 was closely in line with state figures, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Common pleas courts across the state resolved 2.5 percent of criminal cases by going to trial in 2012, the most recent year for which the state Supreme Court has statistics available.

Compare that to the 11.2 percent of criminal cases that went to trial across state common pleas courts in 1980.

Civil cases have grown even more rare.

None of the six jury trials in Marietta Municipal Court this year were civil cases, said Hamilton.

“I’ve been here and I can never remember a civil trial,” he added.

Many civil and criminal parties in municipal court plead or defer to having a bench trial, where the judge hears and rules on the case without seating a jury, he said.

Three of 398 civil cases filed in Washington County Common Pleas Court this year went to trial and one of those was dismissed before being given to the jury for consideration, according to court records.

At less than one percent, that number is even lower than the state number. According to The Columbus Dispatch, 1.2 percent of civil cases were tried in common pleas courts statewide in 2012.

Mediators have been a huge factor in reducing civil cases, said Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Ed Lane.

“Several years ago the Supreme Court wanted a mediator in every county,” said Lane.

The mediators act as a negotiator between parties and work to resolve civil cases before trial.

Washington County employs six mediators who are used on an as-needed basis to resolve disputes, said Lane.

Pleas and negotiations are a necessity, said Rings.

“If we tried every case we’d need double the number of judges, probably triple the number of attorneys,” he said, doing the math.

With nearly 300 indictments, each of the two common pleas court judges would have had two to three trials a week if every case went to trial, said Rings.

Still, trials are an important part of the judicial process, he said.

“I don’t think we want to have a system where all of those decisions are made by a judge and a couple of criminal lawyers,” he said.

Smith agreed.

“There are a few cases that should go to trial and those are the ones that usually do,” he said.