Court backlog blamed on Fresno DA's office

FRESNO, Calif.

We've talked about the court backlog before. Trials and preliminary hearings are frequently postponed because of a lack of courtrooms. Now, some defense attorneys are telling me it could be easily solved if the DA's office would do a better job of choosing cases.

Franz Criego lost a lot of cases in his 23 years at the Fresno County public defender's office, representing accused murderers, molesters, and more. But since moving into private practice and picking up misdemeanor cases, he's almost undefeated. 20 cases in two months and only one client found guilty.

"He is a great lawyer," said fellow defense attorney Charles Magill, "But the fact is, he shouldn't have 20 cases in a row that he's won. He shouldn't have won any of them because if they can't prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, they have no legitimate basis of trying them in the first place."

Magill's law firm also got a not guilty verdict in a misdemeanor this week. Frank van Schaik was accused of violating a restraining order -- an order that had been dismissed. But even with the acquittal, van Schaik says his life is ruined.

"Money gone, criminal record behind my name," he said. "I cannot find a job anymore because all the employers nowadays do criminal background checks."

Magill says the problem is that misdemeanor prosecutors at the district attorney's office have no discretion.

"They're told you either have the person plead guilty to what they're accused of or go to trial," he said.

Criego tells Action News they're going to trial on cases that shouldn't even be in the courts, clogging courtrooms that should be used for more serious cases. For example, he's preparing to defend a client now who's charged with fishing with a net.

The district attorney's office gave this response: "The job of the district attorney's office, first and foremost, is to protect victims and the public and prosecute criminals."

Defense attorneys argue prosecutors are casting their own net, and it's far too wide.

Presiding judge Gary Hoff has told us the backlog hasn't caused any cases to be dismissed yet. But he is sending some criminal cases over to the civil court to be tried because civil cases can be postponed, while some criminal cases can't.

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