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Justice...Eventually

Moving a case from arrest to indictment can take months in DeKalb County

Carmen Jeter is guilty. She admits she's guilty. She says she's ready to move on, to prison.

But Jeter can't go to prison yet. She is stuck in the DeKalb County Jail and won't be able to leave until she pleads guilty. And she hasn't pleaded guilty because - nearly six months after her arrest - she still hasn't been indicted.

"I don't know why it's taking so long," says Jeter, who was arrested in January for fraud and has been unable to make the $6,000 bond set for her that same month. "I've told them everything that I've participated in."

Jeter's situation is extreme. But according to the DeKalb County public defender's office, it's not unheard of.

Georgia law stipulates that accused felons be indicted within 90 days of arrest or be offered bond. In DeKalb, the result is that some defendants are offered bond and can't afford it - and therefore sit in jail for months.

Compare that to Fulton County, where indictments are handed down in days regardless of whether bond is offered, according to Fulton district attorney spokesman Erik Friedly.

DeKalb's problem is that the district attorney's office has no incentive to move quickly to indict defendants who can't make bond, according to Larry Schneider, head of the DeKalb County public defender's office. Schneider says the people who suffer from slow indictments are predominantly powerless, low-income defendants facing low-grade felony charges. (Defendants accused of more serious crimes usually aren't offered bond.)

Schneider claims the DeKalb DA has a policy to indict all cases within 90 days, but the policy isn't always enforced.

The DeKalb district attorney's office declined comment on Jeter's case, saying the attorney handling the investigation was out of town. But a spokeswoman says the office makes every effort to stick to the 90-day rule.

"We've asked the county commission for additional resources for additional staff in order to get those cases moving," says spokeswoman Stephanie Kirijan.

Former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan says Jeter's case is not the norm, but a wait like hers can happen.

"We had great big tags on our files that said, 'Jail case - indict in 90 days," says Morgan, who served as district attorney from 1992 to 2004. "But there were cases in our administration that fell through the cracks, and occasionally people were in jail that we didn't know were still in jail."

Jeter, wearing an orange jumpsuit, sits in a green plastic chair in a room designated for jailhouse interviews. Inmates tap on the glass. Some of the passers-by try to get the attention of William Richardson, Jeter's court-appointed lawyer. Richardson estimates he represents 60 of the women being held at the jail. A few slip him pieces of paper under the door."Most of the time, those women all have the same question," Richardson says. "They want to know when their court date is."

Richardson says that of his clients, Jeter has waited the longest to be indicted. But he says she isn't the only person he's represented who's been burdened by the lengthy indictment process.

"I had one client who was arrested on burglary charges," Richardson says. "He was a kid with a long list of prior convictions, and when the cops picked him up, he was living in an abandoned apartment building. He waited in jail for four months and then the DA's office decided that there wasn't enough evidence to accuse him, so they released him. That's four months that he spent in jail for a crime that there was no evidence that he committed."

Schneider says defendants who do make bond often wait a year to be indicted, but "at least those people are at home and able to take care of their families." He says being held in jail unable to make bond while awaiting indictment is particularly hard on low-income defendants.

"If a case goes absurdly long, we can go to a judge and say, 'Look, this person has been in jail for six months, and we should really let him or her out of jail,'" Schneider says. "And sometimes the judge will agree, but there is no guarantee about that."

Richardson says that if a defendant is found guilty, the judge can count the time spent in jail as part of the sentence. But those found not guilty, or those who aren't eventually indicted, can't be compensated.

In Fulton County, the district attorney's office has a system called a complaint room to speed up the indictment process. The process eliminates the need for a municipal court hearing and allows prosecutors to send cases directly to the grand jury - or offer those willing to plea either probation or a short sentence, if that's the likely outcome in court.The system has drastically cut the wait for indictments, according to Friedly. On average this year, the Fulton district attorney's office has taken eight days to move a case from arrest to indictment. Previous to the complaint room's creation in 2001, it took an average of 111 days to indict those in jail and 265 days to indict defendants out on bond. (Schneider says in DeKalb, it currently takes one to three months to indict defendants in jail, and several months for those out on bond.)

DeKalb does have a pretrial system that grants release to certain suspects. Pretrial investigators look into a defendant's background to determine if he or she might be a flight risk or if the person has prior convictions. If the investigators determine the defendant can be trusted to return to court, the accused is allowed out on his or her own recognizance.

But Jeter isn't eligible for pretrial release. In 2004, she was convicted of fraud and sentenced to probation. Last year, she served two-and-a-half months in prison for violating probation.

She is currently jailed for making purchases with somebody else's credit card information. She says an accomplice acquired the credit card information and social security numbers of several people with good credit. Jeter then used fake IDs to purchase furniture.

Her lawyer says she stands to spend anywhere from one to 10 years in prison, or could face a fine of up to $100,000. She has waived her right to a preliminary hearing, essentially admitting her guilt.

Jeter says she wants to pay her dues and move on - hopefully in enough time to be there for her youngest of four children, who is 17 and pregnant. "I just want to do my time and go back home to Ohio, so I can help my daughter with her baby."

Schneider says that the people sitting in the county jail waiting for an indictment are not the only ones who suffer.

"These people in jail, they may be felons, but who's paying the rent on their apartment, supporting their kids, and supporting their elderly grandparents?" Schneider asks. "When you take somebody and put them in jail for a couple of months, it screws up all sorts of people's lives, not just the person in jail."

coley.ward@creativeloafing.com