KANSAS CITY, KAN. Wyandotte County has had to release at least 21 suspected felons in the last five years because the prosecutor's office did not schedule trials on time.
Wyandotte County Dist. Atty. Nick Tomasic acknowledges the problem but blamed it partly on an overworked staff and an unusual court organization in the county.
The cases of the 20 men and one woman who did not have trials scheduled cannot be refiled. The defendants were accused of a range of crimes, including murder, kidnapping, rape, sodomy, aggravated robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and theft.
Seven of the 21 went on to commit felonies within months of the dismissals. Six had felony convictions before the dismissals.
The Kansas City Star turned up the dismissals through an electronic search of court records.
Lois Jones, a burglary victim, said the criminal justice system had let her down.
"I figured, well, there goes another one who doesn't get what he deserves," said Jones, of Kansas City, Kan. "I just feel like the system didn't work."
The defendant in her case, Darrell Miller, 37, of Kansas City, Kan., had a prior conviction. He later served time for a burglary and theft that occurred six months after the Jones case was dismissed and was released last July.
Losing track; speedy trial
In some of the 21 cases, the District Attorney's Office lost track of the trial deadlines, even though the office receives a weekly list updating the status of cases. The District Attorney's Office said it had allowed other cases to lapse for several reasons, including the inability to find witnesses.
Tomasic, the district attorney since 1972, said that the volume of criminal cases about 2,000 a year made it difficult to keep track of trial dates.
He also noted that speedy-trial dismissals represented a small percentage of all cases.
"As long as we keep getting cases backlogged, it's going to happen," he said.
Kansas law requires that trials begin within 90 days of arraignment for defendants held in jail. Defendants free on bond must be brought to trial within 180 days of arraignment.
However, defendants can waive their right to a speedy trial or request continuances. The state also can request continuances, or a judge can postpone a case because of a crowded court docket.
Missouri law does not put a time limit on trial dates, unless defendants specifically request it.
When charges are dismissed because of speedy-trial violations in Kansas, they cannot be refiled. The only recourse for the district attorney is to petition the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Nathan Barnes, a member of the Unified Board of Commissioners of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., was perturbed by the dismissals.
"It's very alarming that this has happened," said Barnes, chairman of a commission subcommittee that helps set policy for the Police Department.
"I thought ... we had a pretty well run D.A.'s Office. We certainly can't let them (defendants) go free to possibly commit more crimes."
While acknowledging his office's problems, Tomasic also suggested that the job of scheduling hearings and trials be shifted to judges. That is how it's done in Johnson, Leavenworth and Douglas counties, and in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties in Missouri.
One of the cases that was dismissed involved Jesse Jimenez of Kansas City, Kan., who was charged with first-degree murder and other crimes in the shooting death of Land S. Grant, 37, of Topeka, in June 2000.
In the dismissal motion, Jimenez's attorney, Thomas DeCoursey, wrote: "The state simply allowed Jesse Jimenez to fall between the cracks."
Jimenez is in prison on parole violations connected with a previous crime. He is scheduled for release in October.
In March, four men designated as sexually violent offenders were released because the District Attorney's Office failed to schedule hearings within the period required by state law.
Defense lawyers say they watch the calendar when dealing with Wyandotte County cases.
"It's such an easy way to get a case dismissed," said David A. Reed, a lawyer who got a dismissal in Wyandotte County for a client.
Court records in Johnson, Douglas and Leavenworth counties cannot be searched electronically. But interviews with law officials and others found only one speedy-trial dismissal in recent memory in those counties. That case was in Johnson County and was reinstated on appeal.