Backlog of Suffolk County murder cases may take years to address
A backlog of dozens of Boston-area first-degree murder cases built up in the Massachusetts justice system during the COVID-19 public health emergency, in some cases leaving cases pending for several years before trial, a top court official told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Facing a string of questions from Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston, Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Locke said major felonies and especially homicide cases amassed after the pandemic upended operations in 2020.
"In Suffolk County alone, in the city of Boston, we had somewhere in the 80s — 80 pending first-degree murder indictments through COVID and now coming out of COVID," Locke said. "All of those cases actively pending, some of those cases involving multiple defendants, so it could be 70 cases, some of which have two or perhaps three charged individuals."
A Trial Court spokesperson said the figures Locke cited are summer 2021 data reflecting Suffolk County only. More recent data were not available.
Most homicide trials take three to four weeks to reach a verdict, Locke said. In Suffolk Superior Court's criminal division, there are seven trial sessions and typically two to four homicide cases tried at a time, he said.
"If you are taking three, three and a half weeks to try one [case], then one trial session over the course of a year can perhaps reduce that 80s number by maybe 10. Two trial sessions, maybe by 20, three by 30 and so on," Locke said. "That means that it is going to take a period of time to reduce that number, that backlog of homicides. There's no other way to accommodate it than to deal with them one at a time."
When Holmes asked if some of the cases tried dated back to 2018 or 2019, Locke replied, "Perhaps '18."
Holmes argued that a years-long delay in bringing murder charges to trial could cause many negative effects, including witnesses forgetting information and frustration in affected communities at the lack of resolution.
"So you're still saying, with our current plan, with this $800 some-odd million, I'm still looking at four or five years, potentially, of a backlog of cases?" Holmes asked, referring to the nearly $877 million the Trial Court would receive under Gov. Maura Healey's budget proposal. "That's pretty much the answer as of today?"
"Perhaps so. I'd like to say differently, but it is the reality," Locke replied. "These are, as you know, critically important cases, oftentimes defendants being held pretrial, unable either to obtain bail or to get bail because of the nature of the charge."
Court officials also told lawmakers on Tuesday that they want additional funding in the fiscal 2024 state budget to add eight Family and Probate Court judges, warning that they are relying on retired judges sticking around on a "recall" basis to keep the process moving.
Locke said court system leaders need to weigh pending murder cases against requests from prosecutors and litigants to deal with other cases "where time is critical," such as those involving sexual assault of a child or elderly victims.
Holmes then inquired about using Appeals Court judges on a temporary basis to help process pending cases and clear the backlog. Locke said such a maneuver "statutorily could not occur."
"So we could change that?" Holmes asked.
"You could," Locke answered.