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Budget threatens justice for all

Courts are facing drastic cuts, which could mean that long delays will become ‘way of the future’

Posted: July 5, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 5, 2012 1:55 a.m.
 

Several people accused of major crimes in the Santa Clarita Valley are facing a long summer of delays as recent cutbacks and layoffs in the court system threaten to keep alleged killers, rapists and sex offenders from getting their day in court.


At least a half-dozen cases involving people charged with serious local crimes, such as murder and manslaughter — crimes committed months ago — have yet to be heard in court.


Two weeks ago, the Superior Court system in Los Angeles County saw widespread layoffs and further budget cuts, possibly adding to court delays.


Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon announced June 14, “431 court employees will be adversely affected as reductions in state financial support for the California judicial branch force us to cut our budget by $30 million.”


The cuts whittled the Superior Court system countywide to three-quarters of its staff a decade ago.


The cuts affect nearly 1-in-10 employees of the court, the largest trial court in the nation, according to court officials.


And the cuts directly affect San Fernando Superior Court, where most of the major crimes committed in the Santa Clarita Valley are tried.


The latest cuts are part of an ongoing series of state-imposed reductions that began in April 2010 and are believed to have saved $70 million. Although the Superior Court system is administered locally, it is an agent of the state, which continues to suffer shortfalls during the lingering recession.


And the court faces future additional shortfalls as more reductions in state support for the trial courts are proposed for the fiscal year 2012-13 budget.


“This is the unfortunate human impact of the need to reduce our spending by $30 million,” Edmon said.
“We are laying off people who are committed to serving the public. It is a terrible loss both to these dedicated employees and to the public.”


Benefit to defense
To be sure, there are other reasons for court delays besides reduced staff.


Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, said most delays are requested by defense attorneys buying time.


“If cases are delayed or continuances requested, 99 percent of the time it’s defense lawyers asking for time,” she said.


“Cases only get better for the defense with time, like bottles of wine.”


But a handful of judges presiding over Santa Clarita Valley criminal cases have expressed frustration over the apparent impact of cutbacks on the pace of justice.
Bleak future
On June 26 at San Fernando Superior Court, a man wearing a Los Angeles County jail jumpsuit was escorted into a third-floor courtroom by a deputy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.


For almost two years, county prosecutors have been trying to get the man’s assault charge tried.


As Deputy District Attorney Richard Quinones unwrapped a well-worn file folder and thumbed through a wad of creased and dog-eared papers, most of them dated 2010, he reminded Superior Court Judge Harvey Giss of the obvious.


“This is becoming an old case,” he told the judge.


Giss seized the chance to issue some bad news for both the prosecutor and the man still trying to prove his innocence after almost two years.


“This is going to be the way of the future,” he said. “Hundreds of court employees have been laid off, so this is going to happen a lot.


“We’ve got five or six murder cases backed up,” he said.


“We have no control over it. We’re working on all pistons,” he said. “I don’t know what I can say.”
Justice slow in arriving is a painful wait, however, for those seeking closure and resolution.
2-year anniversary
On July 31, Matt Flynn will be confronted with the second anniversary of the death of his daughter Rosemary Flynn.
“My wife, Lucia, and I are frustrated that the pretrial is taking so long — and that the trial is now scheduled for mid-August,” Matt Flynn told The Signal.
“But we are pleased that the person responsible for her death, Bryon Murray, is in jail. And if justice is served, as I know it will be, Murray will spend many years in prison.


“We miss Rose very much, and his cowardly act has changed our lives forever,” the still-grieving father said.
Rosemary Flynn, 21, of Canyon Country, died of a fractured skull after she and Murray argued outside their Canyon Country apartment.


She hit her head on the asphalt after allegedly grabbing the door of a pickup truck as Murray drove it away from their Jakes Way apartment.


Deputy District Attorney Kareen O’Brien works out of the same San Fernando office as Quinones.
She, too, has been working for more than a year to bring the Flynn case to trial.


The case began with a delay this year.


In January, for the second time in just over a month, the attorney representing the man charged in Flynn’s death was granted more time for tests relating to the girl’s death nearly a year and a half ago.


Defense lawyer Evelyn Burns represents 29-year-old Bryon Jeffrey Murray of Canyon Country, who was ordered to stand trial on charges of vehicular manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter in the death of Rosemary Flynn.


On Jan. 11, she asked Superior Court Judge David B. Gelfound for more time for test results.


Burns had made a similar request in early December when she asked for more time to further investigate “some medical tests.”


After a five-minute “sidebar” meeting with lawyers in the hallway, Gelfound granted Burns additional time but noted he wants the trial to start soon.


“I want to get this matter to proceed to trial,” Gelfound said at the time.


More cuts expected


When news of layoffs was announced last month, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, dubbed the “May revise,” proposed to reduce judicial branch funding by another $544 million and to eliminate the ability of the courts to use or maintain reserves as “bridge funding” to delay the impacts of cuts.


This means local court systems will likely face additional mandatory reductions of more than $40 million during the next fiscal year.


According to the Los Angeles County Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge David Wesley, “There will be more cuts next year, and their impacts will be severe.”


“The current cuts already affect the core work of court — the judge in the courtroom — while significant budget shortfalls remain,” Wesley said. “Given the significance of our responsibilities to protect public safety and children, the next round of reductions will further limit our ability to hear civil cases.”


On June 15 — the day after Edmon announced 431 court employees would be cut — hand-delivered notices went out to affected court employees. Those laid off were given two weeks’ paid administrative leave, during which time they could attend court-provided workshops on post-employment benefit issues.


On that one day, the Los Angeles Superior Court had reduced the number of budgeted positions by 23 percent since 2002.


“We are in the midst of a fundamental restructuring of the California courts,” noted John A. Clarke, the executive officer and clerk of court. “But the final outcome is difficult to manage, and impossible to predict due to the speed and severity of the budget cuts being forced upon us.


“Legislators and the governor are restructuring how California addresses corrections, public education, and welfare and health services. Our court is swept up in these catastrophic changes,” said Clarke.


“The commitment of our judicial officers and staff to preserve access to justice is unwavering, but our ability to follow through on that commitment may soon be exhausted,” he said.

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