SEATTLE — The King County Superior Court system is in the midst of a crisis as thousands of crime victims wait for trials in a massive backlog of cases. A backlog already existed before the pandemic, but the shutdown that occurred during COVID-19 doubled it.
“You know the old adage: Justice delayed is justice denied,” Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers said. “And we have that very much in mind right now.”
A package from King County Executive Dow Constantine to the council proposed a significantly lower amount than what the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Superior Court asked for. Now victims of violence are speaking out as the King County Council weighs exactly how much federal relief money it can funnel to the justice system in its last of eight COVID-19 relief packages.
“I don’t mind waiting,” Alleah Taylor said. “I just want things to speed up.”
Taylor was strangled and suffered bruising, fluid in her lungs, a fractured upper-arm bone and a dislocated elbow after prosecutors said then-Seattle Seahawk Chad Wheeler attacked her in January 2021.
“When I came out to the ambulance that night, I told them, ‘You know, I think I died,’” she said. “Check my heart. I think I did.”
Since then, she’s been waiting for his trial. But it’s been a much longer wait for thousands of others.
“I wish justice was quick,” she said. “But unfortunately, with COVID, there’s such a backlog, and I thank God every day that that I survived. There’s a lot of people who’ve been attacked in this way — any kind of way — that didn’t survive. And their families don’t have time with them.”
“I just didn’t want to die,” said another victim of domestic violence who did not want to reveal her name due to threats on her life. “I had to sleep with a gun under my pillow.”
She’s been waiting two years for her attacker’s trial.
“Families are over here waiting to have justice,” she said, “and to heal. Like, that’s what people don’t understand, is like, being able to speak up for yourself and do this. It’s … healing.”
Both women point to families even worse off who have lost loved ones to murder and are still waiting.
“We have, for instance, almost 250 murder trials,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said. “We have to get those in front of a jury. People waiting in jail.”
Satterberg said for starters that they need more staff.
“This is a crisis,” he said, “and we are waving our hand and saying, ‘We need help.’”
The backlog is massive. As of June 30, 2021, 5478 Superior Court cases were charged and waiting for trial. That number was 4,636 the same time last year, a few months after the pandemic shut things down. In 2019, pre-pandemic, it was 3,062.
“It was already too long before the pandemic, and now we’ve doubled the time to get to trial,” Satterberg said.
In Constantine’s proposal to the council, Satterberg’s office is assigned $12.9 million to hire 61 temporary positions, both attorneys and support staff, some of which could end up being permanent.
Documents showed that’s not what Satterberg’s office asked for, though.
“Your office had asked for, what, five to six times what’s currently being allotted?” reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.
“Well, if you ask us for a wish list, it’s going to be a big wish list,” Satterberg said.
Rogers showed KIRO 7 how court officials have done jury selection and held civil and family trials during the pandemic. They have used virtual appearances and screens and distanced jurors, who were not allowed to sit close together in jury rooms.
But criminal trials must be in person. They have only held just over 100 over the course of the pandemic due to rigorous safety requirements and spacing.
Rogers asked for $17.6 million to help them catch up this coming year.
Constantine proposed $3.6 million in his package.
“What was your reaction to that?” Sheldon asked.
“I thought it was a typographical error,” Rogers said. “I actually did not think they would have transmitted $3.6 million. Because the number is just shockingly low and not related to anything, frankly, that we asked for.”
Constantine’s office told KIRO 7 via email, “The Executive received three times as much in requests for COVID 8 as there were funds available.”
If they don’t get the funding they need, Rogers said, they’ll have to shift resources.
“It will result in hundreds of civil and family law cases delayed for years,” he said. “Already, I’ve made the decision for the court to start that shift. Because we have to … and we’re seeing a delay for parents for asking for child custody motions to be heard.”
Now the fate of the funding is in the King County Council’s hands.
“Is there the will to find that money and give it to the courts and the rest of the justice system?” Sheldon asked King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn.
“I think there can be,” Dunn said. “If the public decides to choose, get involved to reach out to their council member and say, ‘Support our core services; make sure the courts are operating’ … it’s going to be a lot safer community.”
Some members of the public have already shared their thoughts during council meetings. Nikkita Oliver, former Seattle mayoral candidate and current Seattle City Council candidate, urged followers on Twitter to speak out against giving millions in relief money to the courts and prosecutors.
“WE SAY: Fund the People!” they wrote. “Fund a Just Recovery! Bloated court budgets don’t keep us safe or make us whole!”
Oliver declined to speak with KIRO 7 for this story.
Taylor said from what she understands that Wheeler’s trial could be in December or even a year from now.
She still gets headaches from her concussion and is working through rehab as she waits. But with the power in the council members’ hands, she’s determined to use this platform.
“I would love for them to have the funding to find those people, to hire those people, so they can help people like me,” she said.
And she has a message for other survivors.
“It’s not going to be a permanent pain that you’re going to feel,” she said. “It’s going to be a permanent strength that you’re going to gain from it.”
The King County Council has its final vote on funding on Tuesday, July 27.
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