Calendaring Criminal cases in North Carolina regularly involves complex scheduling issues, especially when matters concern public figures, substantial pretrial media coverage, and when the proceedings are heard consistent with an NCGS 15A-1431 De Novo trial in Superior Court. Recently, there has been a fair amount of interest regarding how and why the Hardy Jury Trial was scheduled in Mecklenburg County.
Indeed, it is a fair question to ask whether the Hardy Jury Trial was scheduled to be heard in front of older criminal cases on the Charlotte “Domestic” Superior Court Appeals Docket. The answer is most certainly: Yes. Does that mean the District Attorney improperly exercised his calendaring discretion: No.
The Courts within the 26th Judicial District (Charlotte-Metro Region including the City of Charlotte, Davidson, Pineville, Matthews, Huntersville and Cornelius) are perpetually over-burdened with staggering caseloads and limited resources. Put simply, there are only so many days in a year to try cases in Superior Court. There are always too many cases and not enough courtrooms, clerks of court, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, juries and deputies all available at precisely the same time to try cases.
According to 2010 Census estimates, Mecklenburg County is the largest county by population in North Carolina with 919, 628 residents. Wake County is a close second with 900,993. As such, it makes sense that Mecklenburg County has set forth Local Rules regarding Calendaring Criminal Matters.
Without question the Hardy Jury Trial was bumped to the front of the line and will be heard #1 in a common practice attorneys refer to as a Preemptory Setting:
While some may complain of preferential treatment, there are legitimate reasons outside the NFL and Carolina Panthers Win / Loss metrics that would necessitate such a process. In fact, everyone concerned with the matter likely had some role in scheduling. The Defendant, the alleged Victim, the Court, the Defense Attorney, the Assistant District Attorney and the Trial Court Administrator all may have some level of input in selecting an expedited trial date.
Generally speaking, Misdemeanor Criminal cases begin in District Court and are tried without a jury. At such a trial setting, the District Court Judge makes rulings of law and also acts as a de facto jury of twelve, determining guilt or innocence in a criminal matter.
Having the Judge serve both as Judge and Jury may sound a bit unusual. That’s why the accused is given another “De Novo” or “anew, afresh” trial in North Carolina. At that trial, the matter will be heard before a different Superior Court Judge, whom makes decisions of Law, and a jury, whom determines Guilt or Innocence.
If the Defendant is found “Not Guilty” by the District Court Judge, the case ends. The State is not given an appeal. That is different from a District Court Judge granting a “pre-trial motion” on certain legal issues. Frankly, it’s a complicated legal process that is subject to consistent argument in the Trial Courts and Courts of Appeal in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Supreme Court defined an Appeal De Novo as, “It is a new trial as a matter of absolute right from the beginning to the end. It totally disregards the plea, trial, verdict, and judgment of the District Court.” State v. Brooks, 287 N.C. 392, 405 (1975).
If the District Court Judge finds the Defendant Guilty, as a Matter of Right s/he may appeal “De Novo” to Superior Court. That is what has happened thus far in Mr. Hardy’s matter. He was found guilty by a District Court Judge and has now appealed to Superior Court for trial.
The bifurcated trial process of Criminal Misdemeanors in North Carolina can be both complicated and confusing at times. There are subtle distinctions between the types of cases, the standards of practice in particular jurisdictions and availability of courtroom space.
Bill Powers is a North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney. You may email Bill at: Bill@Powmac.com or call: 704-342-4357. Bill is a Board Certified Criminal Law Specialist by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification / National Board of Trial Advocacy. He serves as the 2015 Vice President of Communications for the North Carolina Advocates of Justice and is a regular lecturer and commentator on the Legal System in North Carolina.