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Virus delaying justice in the state’s court system

Salvador Daniel Chavez-Gutierrez has been waiting three years to have his day in court but failure to adjudicate the case before COVID-19 has left the case in legal limbo.
Salvador Daniel Chavez-Gutierrez has been waiting three years to have his day in court but failure to adjudicate the case before COVID-19 has left the case in legal limbo.

By Clint Parker

Asheville – In August of 2017, Salvador Daniel Chavez-Gutierrez, 24 years old at the time, was arrested on two charges, statutory rape of a child and soliciting by computer.

According to the court calendar, his last trial date was last week in Buncombe County Superior Court, but Chavez-Gutierrez, now 28, has been out on bail for the last three years, was not in court. He is fighting the charges and therefore, an actual date for a trial cannot be scheduled.

Asked when a date might be set, Amy Broughton, Buncombe County Senior Assistant District Attorney and Team Leader – Special Victims Division, said, “We haven’t decided yet.”

It is unclear why Chavez-Gutierrez’s case was not adjudicated before COVID-19 hit since the district attorney’s office had two and a half years to try the case before the virus hit this year.

Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams told the Tribune there had not been a trial in Buncombe since mid-March of this year. Williams said there was “just no way to hold one under COVID-19 protocols.”

The latest from NC Chief Justice Cheri Beasley who oversees the court system is she “…has extended several existing emergency directives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The directives continue to allow increased use of technology and seek to limit foot traffic in courthouses.”

“The extension of these emergency directives help ensure that our court system continues to administer justice while protecting the health and safety of court officials, court personnel, and the public,” said Beasley in a press releaser last month. “Members of the pubic should abide by all recommended public health measures in our courthouses as we conduct court business across North Carolina.”

The orders last month by Beasley extend the effect of Emergency Directives 2–8. The emergency directives extended include:

• Require clerks of superior court to post notice at the courthouse to restrict entry by anyone likely exposed to COVID-19

  Allow increased use of teleconferencing for remote court hearings

• Limit public presence in courthouses to those with business to be conducted

• Waive notary requirements for court filings

• Allow certain documents to be served on another party or attorney by email

• Direct clerks of superior court not to enter or report nonpayment of money owed in criminal or infraction cases until after July 31

• Require that magistrates continue to perform marriage

The North Carolina Judicial Branch employs more than 6,400 Judicial Branch employees statewide administing justice in courthouses in North Carolina’s 100 counties. The Judicial Branch budget for FY 2018–2019 was $553.2M, nearly 92% of which is used to pay salaries and the remaining 8% is used for operations. The Judicial Branch receives 2.31% of the overall state budget.

It is not clear when the state’s judicial system will start administrating justice again in the state. Until then, defendants willing to fight their charges will be in limbo while victims will continue to seek justice. 

Editor’s note: The Tribune reminds its readers that all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

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