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Justice at a snail's pace - Bob Paslay

Courtrooms across Georgia and other southern states regularly hold murder trials, and they routinely last a week. But why is it that every trial in California seems to last a lifetime. Is it that celebrity defendants have more ability to stall trials or is it that everything in California takes longer than the South?

I have not watched the Scott Peterson murder trial except to note that it just seems to go on and on and on. I did watch a lot of the O.J. trial and draw my conclusions from that.

In the South, the judge runs the courtroom. It is not uncommon for a judge to say to a defense attorney, "Sir (or Madam), you have asked that question several times. Now move on." Or to say, "Come prepared after lunch to finish the defense testimony today." Something about going to 6 and 7 p.m. that shortens questions and moves things along.

In southern courtrooms we try the person, not the friends, his car or cell phone or anything else. Forensic experts testify to what they found. Investigators testify to what they learned. We don't play recordings of cell phones or tape recording.

Defense attorneys try their best within time constraints to discredit witnesses or call their testimony into question. Then in a day or two when their turn comes they try to prove their client wasn't there or couldn't have done it or didn't do it. But few ghosts are allowed to creep into the courtroom to distract the business.

I wonder several things about California trials. First, how do they ever get jurors to serve? People in Georgia have lives and want to live their lives. They accept that taking a week of their lives to sit on a jury is part of what is expected of them in a democracy. But ask them to start hearing a case around Memorial Day and ending the trial around Christmas and see what they say.

Secondly, how do juries comprehend all the distractions and minutia that they have to endure? If you watch a two-hour play you can come out and have coffee and cheesecake and dissect it with your friends, remembering the dialogue, the facial expressions of the actors. But put on a six-month play and ask for a critique at the end of that and so much is lost or not remembered or discounted because it was told so long ago.

Jonesboro attorney James Studdard wrote a column for us earlier in the week in which he passed along the comments of a Vermont juror who described the stop and go, hurry up and wait experience of one juror. In my lifetime, I have served on two juries and yes you do feel like sheep rather than powerful people who have the fate of another human being in your hand. I did notice that if the judge told you to disregard certain statements those were the first we discussed. There are leaders and sheep on juries just like in life. And we considered everything – how they dressed. One juror on one of my juries said: "I had a cousin who looked like him and he was always getting drunk and getting arrested and I bet this guy's just like him."

There is a concept that time expands to do the job. Give somebody 45 minutes to accomplish a task and they do their best and accomplish it. Give them four days to do the same thing and it takes four days.

Some institutions have built-in inertia. They convince themselves it takes a long time and it does. Congress is like this. Immediately after the 9/11 report is released, unanimously recommended by the bipartisan committee, it enters the molasses world of Congress. And it will be loved to death by hearing after hearing, debate after debate. I marvel that after the tragic attack during World War II at Pearl Harbor that Congress was able to declare war so quickly. I am surprised it wasn't 1945 by the time the declaration actually cleared Congress.

I have been invited as a reporter to bill signings in which pens are handed out and speeches are made. I used to wonder what the big deal was until I traced the history and found out it took six years to pass the bill.

Reporters want to find out enough to write a story and they get on the phone and call experts and interview them for a few minutes, look up research on the Internet and then write the story. Congress schedules hearings. Prepared statements are read. Congressmen with no research of their own ask question after question, often times rhetorically and not in a spirit of fact finding. Many times they are more interested in making a point than learning something new. Someone stays up all night and types this information into the Congressional record. Then it gathers dust as the bill snails its way through subcommittee and committee. More hearings, more questions.

I am a person who likes to jump into the task and get it done. My strength as a reporter was to be organized enough and have done enough research that I could do something in an hour and make it look like it took eight hours. I have worked with reporters who spend eight hours and make it look like it took an hour.

Time is always the enemy of everything we do. It is a tiger that if you don't ride it, it will ride you or worse eat you.

Parents would be good to teach their children time management as schools should do. We should be taught to gather our thoughts before speaking.

All of this is a lesson lost on the California court system, I am afraid. As much as I don't like to, I am afraid I have the same view as many about California. Nothing works like it does anywhere else.

Bob Paslay is the assistant managing editor of the News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 or via e-mail at bpaslay@news-daily.com .