For Victims, an Overloaded Court System Brings Pain and Delays

Maxima Allen, right, embraces her son Alfredo, 19, who suffered irreversible brain damage after he was stabbed in 2011.
Maxima Allen, right, embraces her son Alfredo, 19, who suffered irreversible brain damage after he was stabbed in 2011.

It had gone on for almost four years, Maxima Allen said as she sat on a hard bench in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn over the summer. 

She did not need notes to remember the date — Dec. 20, 2011 — that her son Alfredo was stabbed with scissors on the basketball court of Erasmus High School, causing irreversible brain damage.

Ms. Allen just wanted the case to end. Once the criminal case against Chevoy Nelson, the boy accused of stabbing her son, was over, she could sue the city and the Department of Education for money to help pay for Alfredo’s care, which comes to roughly $1,000 a day.

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But the case, like so many others, had been delayed.

It is not news that cases can take a long time to wind their way through the court system in New York, or that lawyers use delay tactics. But to look closely at the Nelson case is to see this phenomenon played out to an extreme, and to understand the pain it can cause to a victim’s family.

This is not necessarily a story of a broken system. It is a story, though, of an overloaded one, where the schedules of judges and lawyers, records requests, medical examinations and simple errors can stretch cases out over years.

For victims, family members and defendants, the obligatory court appearances and inevitable postponements create “incredible pressure,” said Jocelyn Simonson, an assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School and a former public defender in Brooklyn.

She ticked off a list of how multiple court dates can affect those involved: lost wages, lost jobs, losing a place in drug-treatment programs because of missed sessions, child care issues. For defendants, open cases can cause problems with housing, child custody and professional licenses. And for defendants in jail, a postponement is devastating, Ms. Simonson said.

In Brooklyn, where Alfredo was assaulted, the State Supreme Court is trying new ways to address the backlog. It took an average of 307 days in Brooklyn last year from the time a felony indictment is handed up to the end of the case, up 26 percent from 243 days in 2012.

In Brooklyn and in the other boroughs, once there is an indictment, a case requires an average of 11 court appearances to come to a close, according to the state’s Office of Court Administration.

Mr. Nelson’s case, which required 41 court dates, provides an up-close look at what goes wrong — why delays stretch from weeks to years, and how little delays can build to big ones.

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Source: The New York Times | STEPHANIE CLIFFORD

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