ACLU threatens lawsuit over Fresno County stalled justice

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A gridlock in the justice system could prompt a lawsuit against Fresno County. (KFSN)

A gridlock in the justice system could prompt a lawsuit against Fresno County.

The family and friends of murdered Parlier coach Artie Gomez know just how slowly the courts can move. They found out Monday the accused killer won't even have a preliminary hearing until at least May, fourteen months after the murder.

Action News acquired a couple letters from the ACLU to Fresno County supervisors and to Gov. Jerry Brown -- threatening a lawsuit over the understaffing at the public defender's office. It's a longstanding problem with serious consequences, but the ACLU may be trying to fix something that's already been fixed.

Jerry White murdered Christopher Westrick in 2007. It took seven years for Westrick's family to get closure. The case was somewhat unusual, but the wait for justice is almost universal for victims. And a big part of the problem is overloaded public defenders.

"If the prosecutors show up to court with their victim and their law enforcement officers and their witnesses and they're ready to go yet the public defenders are not prepared to proceed to trial, it stalls," said Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp. She said her office needs more funding as well, but without funding also going to public defenders, it won't help much.

The problem only got worse for several years as the defense disappeared. County supervisors provided funding for 113 staff members at the public defender's office in 2006, but only 78 by 2011.

And now, the ACLU is demanding change. The group says public defenders in Fresno County often work on 1,000 cases a year when state guidelines say they shouldn't be doing more than 150.

"The question is, where do we get the funding source that will bring not just the public defenders but the entire justice system into play so you have an efficient, smooth-running court system," said Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea.

While the ACLU singled out Fresno County, they also sent a similar letter to the governor, and county supervisors say it's a concern statewide.

Public defenders tell us the situation has actually improved over the last year. After staying low for six years, the number of lawyers, investigators and office staff climbed above 100 again this year. The workload is still very high, but it's more manageable now.

And county Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, a law professor himself, says the board doesn't need outside pressure to make improvements.

"I'm not going to be bullied or fearful from a letter from ACLU when we're already doing what is necessary," he said.

Supervisors told us they expect to discuss the letter and its threat of litigation in the next couple weeks.

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