Pre-trial hearing aims to speed up court system


To speed up Anne Arundel County's criminal justice system, the county's judges, prosecutors and public defender have agreed to tinker with it a bit.

Starting in January, prosecutors and lawyers representing defendants charged with felonies will appear before a circuit court judge 45 days after arraignment to set a trial date and resolve outstanding issues.

The hearing will give defendants a chance to consider their legal options and possibly reach plea agreements, according to Alan R. Friedman, the county's public defender. It will also give lawyers on both sides a chance to settle questions over what evidence may be used in the trial and whether prosecutors have provided the defense with all of the required evidence, he said.

"The idea is to get guilty pleas weeded out faster and get all the pre-trial issues resolved, so you know what you're dealing with and you don't have guys in jail waiting for trial when the case could have been resolved months before," Mr. Friedman said.

Currently, trials often are postponed either because pre-trial issues remain unresolved or one side needs more time to interview witnesses and evaluate evidence.

The idea for the hearing was worked out last week in a meeting among Assistant Public Defender Robert Waldman, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee and Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr., chief judge of the Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll County Circuit Courts, Mr. Friedman said.

The scheduling of criminal cases in Anne Arundel County, which is handled by prosecutors, has become a political issue in recent weeks.

John R. Greiber, Jr., a Republican candidate for state's attorney, has charged that scheduling problems in Mr. Weathersbee's office often have meant that defendants wait for trial longer than necessary.

In addition, charges against a few defendants have been dropped because prosecutors didn't schedule their trials within the 180 days required by Maryland law -- a point Mr. Greiber hammers at repeatedly.

Mr. Greiber said last week that Mr. Weathersbee was "reacting to all the issues that I've set in motion" when he agreed to the plan.

But Mr. Weathersbee insisted last week the current system works well and said he agreed to add the scheduling hearing only to see if it helps.

"The bottom line is the great majority of cases are disposed of by pleas," Mr. Weathersbee said. "So forcing people to get together at an earlier stage might have some benefit. We'll see."

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