Trials delayed due to staffing issues in the Chatham Co. District Attorney’s Office

Published: Jan. 3, 2023 at 3:11 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 3, 2023 at 6:07 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Four men accused of kidnapping and murdering a 24-year-old woman appeared in Chatham County Superior Court on Tuesday for a jury trial.

However, that trial didn’t end up happening. The judge is warning prosecutors they’re running out of time to hold a trial at all.

This trial has been delayed six times since the abduction and death of Melanie Steele in 2019.

The state asked the court to push back the trial again because they didn’t have a prosecutor familiar with the case. Judge John Morse Jr. agreed to delay the hearing but said that if the state isn’t ready for trial in February, he might have to dismiss the case altogether.

Katie Kelly, who was the public defender for John Bailey - one of the people facing kidnapping and murder charges - filed a motion to dismiss Tuesday, telling Judge Morse that understaffing in the Chatham County District Attorney’s office was “not her client’s problem.”

The prosecutor that had originally been assigned to the case left the DA’s office just a few days before Christmas.

New documents were filed at 8:40 a.m. Tuesday, less than two hours before court started for Claire Farley and Lyle Bunham, both assistant district attorneys, to take over the case for the state.

This case has been going on for years. Melanie Steele’s body was found in March of 2020, six months after police say she was kidnapped.

This wasn’t the only case that was pushed back Tuesday because prosecutors weren’t ready for court.

At least one other case scheduled for jury selection on Tuesday was also delayed because there was not a prosecutor assigned to the case.

Judge Morse called the circumstances leading to these continuances unprecedented. Again, he said that if the state isn’t ready for court next month, he might toss them out entirely.

Other cases could be impacted by staffing shortage

WTOC Investigates wanted to know how many other murder cases are without a state prosecutor, so I looked up cases that are scheduled for trial in the coming weeks.

Several murder cases don’t have a prosecutor assigned to them after looking up cases that are scheduled for trial in the coming weeks.

There is supposed to be the name of a prosecutor, but some say Assistant District Attorney pending.

Many of the indicted murder cases looked at have scheduled court hearings later this month. Others are set to go to trial in a few weeks.

WTOC Investigates received a copy of the current list of staff members at the DA’s Office on Tuesday afternoon and compared the current list to a phone directory list from two years ago around the time Jones took office.

Back then, there were around 112 employees on staff. Today - that number is around 73 - an almost 35 percent decrease.

We’re working to verify how many felony prosecutors have quit or left since January 2021 and the effect that’s having on the justice system and what is being done about it.

WTOC did reach out to Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones for comment. She responded with the following statement:

“The prosecutor most recently responsible for trying this complex five defendant murder case from 2019 left the office in late December and, before doing so, filed a timely motion alerting the Court that “[d]ue to the complexity and volume of the case, no other [ADA] will be able to prepare the case for trial in a shortened time period.” The case has since been reassigned and will be prepared and resolved in keeping with the law and the Order of the Court.”