District attorney claims explained, defended

Claims of vast prosecutorial experience made by both candidates in the election for Blount County district attorney have raised questions of credibility from two different perspectives. With one candidate, there seemed to be too few cases to sustantiate the degree of experience claimed. With the other, there seemed to be too many cases claimed to be believable, or achievable, within a single term.

The standard of reference for the numbers associated with each candidate’s claims is a computer-generated report from the State Judicial Information System, issued by the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts. The system lists cases handled for each attorney practicing in the state.

The Blount Countian
asked both candidates to explain the numbers underlying their claims of experience. Following is a description of the possible problem with each claim, followed by a summary of what the candidate said by way of explanation. The Blount Countian
makes no attempt to evaluate the explanations on their merits. It is left to the individual reader to do that. No degree of seriousness is implied by order of appearance below; it is alphabetical by last name. Candidate: Pamela Casey Description of possible problem:

Without citing a specific number of cases handled, candidate refers to her extensive experience, stating she has handled a substantial number of highly difficult and complex cases over the last 32 months while employed as an assistant attorney general in the Alabama attorney general’s office. The State Judicial Information System lists 28 case records under the attorney code number for Pamela Casey. Candidate’s explanation:

All of the cases handled by the Alabama Attorney General’s office are listed under the Attorney General’s (Troy King’s) attorney code, regardless of which assistant attorney general handled the case. Assistant attorneys general may in some situations be listed as the prosecuting attorney, if they file a document with the court called a “Notice of Appearance.” But they are not required to do so, and most often do not, since it will automatically be credited to the attorney general’s office. Whenever a case is prosecuted by the attorney general’s office, the assistant attorney general is the lead prosecutor on the case. “It’s not about getting the credit, it’s about doing the job,” Casey said.

Casey estimates that during her tenure as assistant attorney general, she has handled approximately 100 criminal cases in 20 or 21 of the state’s 41 judicial circuits. She said she has about 30 cases in currently active status. She said she has handled about 15 cases before the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Those cases normally do not involve personal appearance and argument, but are usually handled by way of filing briefs, some of which run 100 to 200 pages. She said if necessary, she can document in detail the number of cases she has handled as lead attorney by reference to records in the attorney general’s office, but that it would take several hours of staff time to do so.

“These cases are the most complex, time-consuming, and difficult cases occurring in the state, including a number of capital murder cases, sometimes requiring several weeks to try before a jury,” she said. “It’s ironic to me that these questions would only be raised here at the last minute before the runoff,” Casey said. “Why wasn’t any of this brought up during the primary? I think it shows how desperate they are to discredit the degree and complexity of prosecutorial experience I bring to the job.”

Candidate: Scott McPherson Description of possible problem:

Candidate cites that he “has prosecuted 18,344 criminal cases in Blount County, including murder, rape, robbery assault, drug trafficking and distribution, and sex crimes against children.” For many readers, “prosecuted” implies “tried the case in court.” The majority, however, were not tried in court, but handled in other ways such as plea bargain or dismissal. The types of cases cited – murder, rape, robbery and so on – are a small minority of the total. Candidate’s explanation:

The number 18,344 is the number of cases attributed by the State Judicial Information System to Scott McPherson during the period from the spring of 2001 through Dec. 31, 2004, encompassing several months served as assistant district attorney and a little more than three years served as Blount County district attorney.

McPherson said 18,344 is the official and bona fide number of cases he handled, as attested by the state court information system. “I handled that volume as a prosecutor, although that number didn’t go to trial. They were under my supervision, required my active participation, and my final disposition,” he said.

The total includes felonies, misdemeanors, traffic cases, juvenile delinquency cases, and both felony and misdemeanor probation cases. Approximately 1400 of that number were felony prosecution cases. About 15,000 cases were misdemeanor, traffic, and juvenile cases, with misdemeanor and traffic cases being the larger two categories. At least 40 cases were actually tried before a jury in Circuit Court; cases going to trial in District Court numbered “hundreds,” McPherson said.

He was lead prosecutor in virtually all cases that went to trial during his term as district attorney, with the possible exception of no more than two or three cases handled without his participation by assistant district attorney Mark Sapp. McPherson said he had an 80 percent to 90 percent conviction rate on cases that went to trial.

“What’s in that printout, that’s what you’ve done, and there’s 486 pages showing what I’ve done and one page showing what my opponent has done. No ifs, ands, and buts. That’s the official record. And by the way, dismissal is an aspect of prosecution, too. If the evidence doesn’t support conviction, justice requires dismissal.”