Time to Work: With fresh 6-year term, Griggers already thinking about priorities

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 7, 2004

JEFFERSON – With his election behind him, District Attorney Greg Griggers plans on attacking some long-term issues in the 17th Judicial Circuit.

Appointed in January 2003 to fill the unexpired term of former DA Nathan Watkins, who retired, Griggers said while his office had been successful over the past year-and-a-half, he could now focus on a number of priorities.

“I’m satisfied with what I’ve done, but I know we can do it better,” he said.

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Getting the office back to level state funding is a key doing it better. The DA’s office that covers Greene, Marengo and Sumter counties is down one assistant prosecutor – the position Griggers left vacant when he stepped up to the DA’s job, has no drug task force and has not been able to develop a child advocacy program.

“With the budget stretched as tight as it is, we’re pretty much in survival mode,” he said. “We’re just trying to do what we need to do. It’s a struggle just to pay our expenses and that keeps what we’re able to do at a minimum.”

Even with a restrained budget, Griggers and his staff has been able to keep pace with current criminal cases in the circuit and even cut further into a serious, 1,200-case backlog. The start of which, under Watkins leadership, was the implementation of a two-week term of court.

“Nathan was able to get (the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts) to appoint us a judge for the second week and that let us cut into the backlog,” Griggers said. “It’s gotten so hard to get a judge to do that now because the judges’ budgets have been cut as well. It’s hard to get someone to preside.”

Although the task of getting a special judge to augment Circuit Judge Eddie Hardaway’s schedule, it’s one Griggers wants to tackle – going so far as pressing for the state to add a new circuit judge’s position for the three-county circuit.

“That second trial week gives us nine trial days as opposed to four, and it helps us negotiate pleas as well,” he said. “… we can’t expect (defendants) to plea without a (trial) date. It’s hard to get these cases resolved because you don’t have people willing to jump fences to go to jail. The only way (to get a plea agreement) is if they think they’re going to trial and will go to the penitentiary if they do go to trial.”

“(The state) doesn’t need to be taking our trial days. Every DA knows that’s the pressure point – when you have a trial day, cases move. Taking away trial days is like tying our hands.”

Permanently securing a second judge in the district is a way for Griggers and his prosecutors to multiply the trial dates in a circuit that AOC figures say has had a 71 percent increase in criminal cases in the last decade, the seventh highest increase the state.

“I truly believe we need another circuit judge. We’re fortunate we have such a good judge with Judge Hardaway, but he doesn’t have time to turn around. If I had another circuit court judge, and have the schedule I do with Judge Hardaway, I could go with the cases,” Griggers said.

“Is it financially feasible? I don’t know, but given the number of cases it’s absolutely feasible and I’ll work toward getting another judge,” he said. “If I could get another Judge Hardaway, I’d get another Judge Hardaway. He needs a break and we need more court days. Defendants need to know they’re coming to the alter.”

Trials days are the key to cutting into the circuit’s backlog, Griggers said, a problem that took three years to get address in Marengo County – cutting the backlog to just 200 cases.

Griggers aims to bring the backlog down to 150 cases in Sumter and Greene counties.

“By keeping our nose to the grindstone, we can cut into this backlog more. … Time is going to help more than anything,” he said.

Time will help in some other areas Griggers said he’s targeting. Mostly that time will help develop a funding source for program support out of his office.

“There are several things I want to look at now that I know I’m going to be around long enough to see the impact and personally be involved in them,” he said.

Bill Mason heads the office’s worthless check division, currently headquartered in an office in Greene County, but with counties

“We probably need to consolidate and get under one roof,” he said.

That may be a problem. The District Attorney’s office in Sumter County, located in a basement, floods.

“The county has been great, letting us use it for no rent, but I couldn’t justify spending money if I wasn’t around. Now we’re going to look somewhere and run everything out of one building somewhere ini the district,” Griggers said.

Renewing the office’s drug task force is another area for concentration now the election is out of the way.

Griggers said once established, the DTF could likely secure grants and could possibly hire a prosecutor dedicated to drug-related prosecutions.

“We have a problem with drugs and if you had a drug task force where the officers concentrated (on drug crimes), we’d be able to do more than now. It’s an area where we can improve what’s been done already by our local law enforcement agencies,” he said.

Ultimately, Griggers said, the establishment of such a task force would come down to funding.

“It’s whether or not we can get a grant from the state,” he said.

Protecting child victims of physical and sexual abuse is also an issue intertwined with funding, but an area Griggers hopes his office can expand.

“I promised some people we would have a child advocacy center in the 17th circuit and we’re going to get it,” he said.

“I don’t know what I have to do to do it. If it takes me going door to door with my hat out we’re going to get one,” he said.

Griggers knows the impact a center can have on prosecuting crimes perpetrated on children. He cites the investigation of the Landrum-Napier murder case where a child who was witness to the circumstances was interviewed in Shelby County’s center.

“It’s the best tool to address child victims. It not only provides a way to help prosecute, but it provides counseling for those children … it’s something we need in our circuit and it’s something we will have,” he said.