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VOL. 125 | NO. 171 | Thursday, September 02, 2010

‘Vertical Prosecution’ To Enhance DA’s Casework

By Andy Meek

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Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons’ creation this week of a new special victims unit is part of a paradigm shift for his office that involves new prosecutors and new ways of trying cases.

This year, the Shelby County Commission appropriated funding that allowed the district attorney’s office to add two prosecutors to its total of more than 100. That, in turn, preceded the DA’s establishment of the new unit that will prosecute all rapes, aggravated rape, child sexual abuse and severe physical abuse cases.

But an even more important dynamic will be in play once the new unit gets cranked up. Its cases will be vertically prosecuted, a litigation method Gibbons’ office keeps expanding as it adds prosecutors.

The difference between horizontal and vertical prosecution is the difference between an assembly-line production and a custom-made order.

As more funding is appropriated that allows the DA’s office to add prosecutors, the increase in vertically prosecuted cases means one or two prosecutors will stay with more types of cases from start to finish.

And as more prosecutors come on board, the office decides what new case category to begin vertically prosecuting.

“We have a case load of about 130,000 cases per year, from vandalism to murder and everything in between,” Gibbons said. “And we deal with most of those 130,000 cases through what we call horizontal prosecution. A case may start off in General Sessions, then go to the grand jury, then to criminal court, and different assistants handle that file as it goes to each new step.”

The alternative is for an individual or small team of prosecutors to handle a case from the minute it hits the doorstep at 201 Poplar Ave. to once it’s finally disposed of.

“Obviously, that’s going to result in a better product from the standpoint of that prosecutor knowing that case cold and being able to dot every I and cross every T,” Gibbons said.

There are other benefits to vertical prosecution, including the way it streamlines interactions with victims and related individuals.

“It enables victims, families, witnesses and law enforcement officers to always know who is handling a certain case, creating a better service to the public,” according to the 2009 annual report of the D.A.’s office.

The new special victims unit is an outgrowth of Operation Safe Community, a countywide anticrime strategy. Under the plan, based on looking at its caseload at the time, the DA’s office estimated it would need an additional 24 prosecutors to vertically prosecute the types of cases it thought needed to be handled that way.

The office now has 12 of that 24. Last year, as a result of additional prosecutor positions funded by the county, the office began vertically prosecuting all domestic violence cases.

As more prosecutors join the ranks, Gibbons isn’t sure where the DA’s office will next expand its new case-handling method.

“That’s a good question, and we have some internal debates about that,” Gibbons said. “Examples might be our aggravated robbery caseload. Possibly our juvenile caseload that involves juveniles who are transferred to be tried as adults.”

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