Memphis mayor, advocates share concerns about delays in Shelby Co.’s criminal justice system

Published: Jan. 13, 2023 at 10:42 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The 6th Amendment of the United States Constitution says every American is entitled to a speedy trial.

But in Memphis and Shelby County, it takes years for a case to get resolved.

There are 10 judges and 10 courtrooms in the Shelby County criminal court system.

How many trials do you think those 10 judges presided over in their courtrooms last year?

The answer: 35.

Just 35 trials took place at 201 Poplar in 2022.

The wheels of justice in Memphis aren’t just slow, critics tell Action News 5 they’re broken.

Take a look at the number of cases that went to trial over the last few years as outlined in Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s weekly newsletter, which comes from the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office.

The data reads that 113 trials were held in 2018, and 96 trials took place the following year in 2019.

The numbers plunged during the pandemic, just 17 cases were tried in 2020, and 22 went to trial in 2021.

But even after the world opened back up in 2022, Shelby County judges held only 35 trials last year.

Yonée Gibson is a court watch advocate for Just City, a justice reform advocacy group. It’s her job to sit inside the courtroom to make sure victims and the accused are treated according to the letter of the law.

“People are just not getting a fair and speedy trial,” she said. “And who’s in charge? That is a great question.”

Gibson said there is a glaring lack of transparency in the Shelby County criminal court system.

”If there’s not transparency, then accountability is just kind of easy to skirt,” she said. “If no one knows what is happening, then no one can tell you, ‘hey, this shouldn’t be happening.’”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, an attorney by trade, agreed with Gibson.

He said he also wonders what the judges are doing all day.

”I think our criminal justice system is completely broken,” said Strickland. “The norm is with serious felonies, you try them within 12 months. That’s nowhere near what we’re doing in Shelby County. They need to start trying cases every week or every other week.”

Gibson said she’s noticed empty courtrooms, long recesses, and attorneys unprepared when they get to court. And case after case, she said, keeps getting reset.

Perfect example: the trial for the suspects accused of murdering Memphis Chamber of Commerce President Phil Trenary in 2018 still hasn’t taken place. And with hundreds of cases pending, too many other families know the pain of waiting for justice.

“This is inefficient. This is not working. The way we’ve always done things cannot be the way we always do things,” said Gibson.

“The whole court system is answerable to the public,” said Mayor Strickland, “and the public has to stand up and say we’re tired of this and we want it to stop.”

Transparency is not the only problem, said Gibson.

The Shelby County DA’s Office said only 35 cases went to trial last year. But Gibson said the Criminal Court Clerk’s Office found 56 trials were held, and Just City data analysts found 68 cases went to trial in 2022.

“That number keeps on changing depending on who you ask,” said Gibson, “Call me hopeful, call me naïve, I think everything can be fixed. But it starts with the people who are in charge, who know they’re in charge and it starts with our judges and our lawyers.”

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