By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The latest effort to tackle the
chronic backlog of felony cases in the Bronx is paying dividends
less than two weeks after its launch, a court official said
Patricia DiMango, a Brooklyn Supreme Court justice
reassigned to the Bronx to help oversee the initiative, said she
has disposed of approximately 30 older felony cases with plea
agreements since mid-January, when Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman
announced a program to address the decades-long backlog. Some of
these cases have been pending for years.
"We've already hit a number of the targeted cases," she
said. "I think everybody's trying to work towards the goal."
The Bronx backlog has bedeviled court officials. More than
70 percent of felony cases are over 180 days old, exceeding
guidelines set by the Office of Court Administration that call
for them to be adjudicated within six months.
Over 900 felony cases have been pending for two years or
longer, more than double the combined total for the city's other
four boroughs, according to court officials.
The centerpiece of the new plan is a special so-called
blockbuster part, supervised by DiMango, which will handle the
oldest felony cases, some of which have been pending for more
than three years.
Starting at the end of February, 10 special trial courtrooms
will begin operating for six months under the supervision of
judges transferred from outside the city to handle cases from
DiMango's blockbuster part that cannot be resolved.
Judge Douglas McKeon, who was named the administrative judge
for criminal matters in the Bronx as part of the initiative,
said the 10 trial parts will draw from a pool of judges.
According the Office of Court Administration, the pool so
far includes Suffolk Supreme Court Justices Andrew Crecca and
Joseph Santorelli, Albany Supreme Court Justices Thomas Breslin
and Joseph Teresi, Onondaga Supreme Court Justice Donald
Greenwood, Oswego Supreme Court Justice James McCarthy, Monroe
Supreme Court Justice John Ark, Acting Supreme Court Justice
Richard Kloch in Niagra County and a pair of Court of Claims
judges, Donald Cerio in Madison County and John Brunetti in
McKeon said more judges will likely be added to the pool.
In addition, three judges have volunteered to do shorter
stints: Michael Coccoma, the deputy chief administrative judge
of courts outside New York City; Suffolk County Administrative
Judge Randall Hinrichs; and Court of Claims Presiding Judge
DiMango was chosen in part because of a track record of
success in encouraging plea deals in Brooklyn, Lippman said in
announcing his plan.
DiMango said lawyers and prosecutors who appear before her
know that the cases will no longer be allowed to languish. That
in turn gives her the leverage to offer lawyers a simple choice:
Negotiate a plea or head to trial almost immediately.
"They know why I'm there," she said. "I'm here to resolve
this case now. For the most part, I'm not a big fan of
McKeon said the initiative, which Lippman vowed would
eliminate the oldest felony cases within six months, presents a
number of logistical challenges, including finding enough
courtroom space and deciding how many additional jurors to seek
to handle the extra trials.
He also said he would pursue long-term efforts to ensure
that the backlog does not re-emerge, such as the assignment of
specific judges to intervene when cases are pending for too
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