The number of cases in Prince George's County Circuit Court has increased dramatically since last year, leading some judges to assert that, unless the caseload is somehow reduced during the next few months, the state will have to drop charges against some suspects who cannot be tried within the time limits set by state law.
Several factors have contributed to the increase in cases going to trial, but lawyers and judges most often blame State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall's policies of refusing to accept plea bargains or suggest sentences that are lower than the ones recommended in an experimental sentencing guidelines program.
"We're trying to stuff 10 pounds of organic fertilizer into a five-pound sack and it ain't working," said Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia, referring to the increasing caseload in the courthouse. "The sack is getting a lot of wear and tear and now it's breaking."
Marshall, for his part, says that he is not interested in changing his policies, and that the judges are exaggerating the seriousness of the problem.
According to statistics compiled by the clerk's office, there are 1,867 criminal trials, appeals and sentencings pending in Circuit Court over the next two months. Last year at this time there were 1,366, and in 1979 there were 1,160. Of the 1,867 cases, two-thirds are criminal trials.
The sharp increase in cases is partly the result of an increase in arrests and indictments, according to court statistics, and the load has been exacerbated by the fact that there are fewer judges hearing cases in Circuit Court now that Judge Samuel Meloy has retired and has not been replaced by another judge.
But the main causes of the increase, according to judges and lawyers, are the prosecutors' policies.
For the past few months, Marshall has refused to allow defendants to plead guilty to a lesser charge. His refusal has encouraged many defendants to go to trial rather than plead guilty.
But an even more important factor encouraging defendants to go to trial, according to judges and defense attorneys, has been Marshall's policy regarding experimental sentence guidelines. The guidelines, which judges in Prince George's courts have been following since last summer, suggest a range of average sentences that criminals could receive for certain crimes.
Because prosecutors have been reluctant to recommend a specific sentence, preferring instead to leave the sentence to the judge's interpretation of the guidelines, defense attorneys have preferred to take their cases to trial.
"I can get the guarantee of guidelines sentencing whether my clients plead guilty or go to trial," said Darlene Perry, a lawyer with the public defender's office. "Why should they plead guilty when no one's offering them anything?"
Before the experimental sentencing guidelines program went into effect last summer, about 75 percent of Perry's clients pleaded guilty to crimes and 25 percent had trials. Now, Perry said, all of her clients have trials.
Other defense attorneys say they also are encouraging their clients to go to trial, where there is always a chance of an acquittal, instead of pleading guilty and taking the chance of a harsh sentence. "No one will say anymore if they're talking about a five-year sentence, an eight-year sentence or a 10-year sentence," complains defense attorney Gary Ward. "They just say guidelines. That's nothing to talk to your client about."
Pat Nelson, a political scientist who helped set up the guidelines in conjunction with a panel of state judges, says it was never intended that prosecutors discontinue recommending specific sentences, as Marshall's office has done.
Judges predict that if the caseload keeps increasing at the rate of the past several months, the state's attorney's office will have to drop prosecution of some cases by July because of a state law that defendants must go to trial within six months of their bond hearings. "All we talk about at lunch," said one judge, "is how we avoid Armageddon in July."
But Marshall says that such dire predictions do not trouble him. He points out that trials currently are scheduled only two months after bond hearings. Under no circumstance, says Marshall, will he drop prosecution of cases -- even if it means assigning two prosecutors to a case instead of one.
Meanwhile, Marshall is not interested in abating the flow of trials by granting plea bargains or allowing his prosecutors to suggest more lenient sentences.
"I'll be damned if I can do anything for a person who's committed a crime if we can prove it," Marshall said.
Marshall's refusal to allow his prosecutors to negotiate with defense attorneys about guilty pleas and sentencing led administrative Judge William H. McCullough to end pretrial conferences this week. In pretrial conferences, a prosecutor normally tells a judge that he has offered a certain sentence to a defendant in exchange for a guilty plea; the defense attorney, who also is present, normally says that he has accepted such an agreement, and the judge normally approves the deal.
But for the last few months in Prince George's, pretrial conferences have been "nonproductive," according to Assistant State's Attorney Michael Whalen. Judge McCullough agrees. "Marshall is saying no plea bargaining," said McCullough, "so I'm saying fine, no pretrial conferences."