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Westmoreland

Westmoreland to have more trials more often to whittle backlog

Rich Cholodofsky
| Sunday, July 22, 2018, 5:51 p.m.

Westmoreland County’s criminal courts have a logjam when it comes to trials.

Starting in August, scheduling tweaks will allow cases from the northern part of the county to go to court every month in an effort to clear what has become an uneven system in which some months have too many trials and others have none.

“We’ve been trying to figure out for a while how to get these cases tried,” said Common Pleas President Judge Rita Hathaway. “We’re all optimistic this will work well.”

Criminal trial terms run one week every month.

The county is split into two zones — one for cases from the northern section that includes New Kensington, Arnold, Lower Burrell, Salem and the Greensburg area and another with cases from the rest of the county, including southern regions around Monessen; western areas from Hempfield, Jeannette and North Huntingdon; and eastern parts that include Latrobe and Ligonier.

Trials are scheduled from each zone every other month before four criminal division judges.

That system has led to what officials say has become a backlog of northern zone cases, in which more defendants are likely to seek jury trials rather than dispose cases through plea bargains.

The northern zone had 315 pending cases in June, its most-recent trial term. Of those, just 42 were listed as ready for trial. Two were conducted.

July’s list of 200 cases from the county’s other regions saw 15 cases scheduled, with one ending in a trial.

The court oversaw 32 criminal trials in 2017. Through July, there have been 13 trials this year, with two ending in hung juries.

Some backlogged cases have been pending for up to four years, said Pamela Neiderhiser, the county’s criminal court administrator.

“A lot of the cases in the northern zone we are not able to reach. We’re trying to get those cases in front of a jury in a more timely manner,” Neiderhiser said.

She said officials aren’t sure why there is such a disparity of trial-ready cases between the two zones.

The revised system will allow judges to schedule trials from the northern region every month from their own dockets and take on cases from the other judges when needed.

The backlog does not include more than two dozen pending murder cases.

Those are assigned to judges based on a rotation system, not geography. Those serious cases typically take a week or longer, if they go to trial.

Court officials over the years have struggled to bring as many cases as possible to trial. Two-week trial terms were used more than a decade ago but scrapped after a state report identified Westmoreland as having the state’s worst usage rate for jurors.

Hathaway said a proposal for two-week trial terms was rejected over concerns that jurors again would be summoned but not used.

“This way we don’t have to inconvenience jurors more than we already are,” Hathaway said.

District Attorney John Peck said his office pushed for extended trial terms.

“We’re just going to have to wait and see how this system develops,” he said. “I think if we went to two weeks, we’d get a lot more done.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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