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Julie Smith/News Tribune Cole County Presecutor Mark Richardson
Julie Smith/News Tribune Locke Thompson, Republican candidate for Prosecuting Attorney in Cole County.

A court system needs to act as speedily as possible, both candidates in the Aug. 7 Republican primary for Cole County prosecuting attorney agree.

But challenger Locke Thompson alleges incumbent Mark Richardson is not doing enough to meet that goal when it comes to the average speed of a case and dismissal rates.

Thompson worked as an assistant prosecutor in Jasper County before returning to Jefferson City to work in the special prosecutions unit of the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

Richardson, who has been Cole County prosecutor for 12 years, says Thompson's assertions ignore underlying reasons for dismissal rates and delays in prosecutions.

Dismissal rates

Cole County had 712 felony criminal cases in 2017, according to OSCA records. Of those, 537 involved a guilty plea and 139 were dismissed by prosecutors — leaving the county with a state dismissal rate of 20 percent.

Among other case dismissals, two were dismissed by judges, seven cases due to the death of the defendant, and nine were sent back to the Cole County grand jury. Those cases either had additional charges added or changed to them or they were dismissed, OSCA officials said. There were also nine jury trials and nine court trials.

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"There are a lot of folks concerned with the dismissal rate of (Cole County) cases," Thompson said.

Cole County tied for the eighth-highest dismissal rate statewide and had the highest dismissal rate among Mid-Missouri courts in 2017.

The 20th circuit, which includes Osage, Franklin and Gasconade counties, had a state dismissal rate of 13 percent. The 13th circuit, comprised of Boone and Callaway counties, had a dismissal rate of 12 percent. The 26th circuit, made up of Camden, Laclede, Miller, Moniteau and Morgan counties, had a 9 percent dismissal rate.

Those statistics may not reflect an accurate view of reality, Richardson said.

"Our drug court is a dismissal if a person successfully completes the program," he said. "That adds to the dismissal rate. Another high area of dismissals is domestic violence cases. Two people have a dispute, they've been in a long-term relationship and then say they have worked it out. So there is a good reason that from county to county you have dismissal rates that vary."

Nine people — of 79 felony DWI cases — were accepted into the Cole County DWI Court, and 15 people — of 455 felony drug cases — graduated from the Cole County Drug Court in 2017, according to OSCA.

Dismissals have a reason behind them, Richardson said.

"We're not ever going to run a system where we have no dismissals," he said. "Our office doesn't go forward on some of the lower-level domestic violence cases if the complaining victim makes a good case for dismissal."

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Speed of prosecutions

The average time it takes a case to get through a Cole County court can hinder the effectiveness of prosecution, Thompson said.

"In 2017, the OSCA figures show it was 231 days, compared to the state average of 187," Thompson said. "When I see that, it tells me that either cases are kicking around too long, witnesses are disappearing, evidence is getting stale, or they're not making good charging decisions in the first place."

The 19th Circuit Court, located in Cole County, had the eighth-longest period of time for a case to get through the courts among the 46 circuits in the state in 2017, according to OSCA records.

The 19th Circuit also averaged the longest time among the four circuits in Mid-Missouri — the 20th circuit (Osage, Franklin and Gasconade counties) averaged 230 days, the 26th circuit (Camden, Laclede, Miller, Moniteau and Morgan counties) averaged 200 days, and the 13th circuit (Boone and Callaway counties) averaged 162 days.

Loaded dockets are the main cause for delays in Cole County, Richardson said.

"In Cole County we only have four courts, and many more felony cases are in the system than a decade ago," Richardson said. "The judges are only human, and the number of cases has resulted in delayed justice.

"I'm a believer that justice delayed is not good and cases should move forward for the sake of the victims and community as well as the defendants because it does them no good to wait around to get their case heard. The Legislature has seen fit to give us a fifth judge, so that should help the process in the future."

During the 2018 legislative session, the Missouri General Assembly approved Cole County's request for a second associate circuit judge's position, beginning in 2021 — with that judge to be chosen during the 2020 general election.

The second associate circuit judge's job was removed in 2003, when lawmakers added the third circuit judge's job.

The bill was one of the measures former Gov. Eric Greitens signed June 1, before resigning from the office.

The winner of the Republican primary will face presumed Democratic nominee Deirdre Hirner in the November general election.

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