Prosecutors in Washington County have cleared an accumulation of nagging old criminal cases and sharply reduced delays in charging new ones.
Decisions on whether to take police investigations to court -- meaning, filing felony charges against adults accused of committing crimes -- have dwindled to an average of three days, said new Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, elected a year ago. In December, that number has fallen to a single day on average, he said.
"When we came in there was a serious backlog of cases," Orput said. "We think that's unfair to the police and it's unfair to the victims. It was a No. 1 complaint from police."
Orput and Steve Povolny reorganized the office with new rules about which cases would go to trial and which would pursue plea bargains. Orput credits assistant prosecutors who handle adult and juvenile cases for rallying to the cause.
"To their credit, they saw what the cops wanted and they stepped up," said Povolny, a former cop himself who Orput hired as his first assistant attorney, the No. 2 job in the office.
"I would concur. I know it's been a priority for them and it's improved considerably," said Lee Vague, who in Woodbury heads the county's largest city police department. "It feels more like a partnership than it has in the past."
In Cottage Grove, another large police department, Chief Craig Woolery said Orput has met with command staff and detectives "to hear first hand what the concerns are" and keeps them informed of how court decisions and constitutional law will affect their investigations.
"He does prepare police officers and detectives, in charging cases, what they need to know up front," said Woolery, whose department has 39 sworn officers and sent more than 300 adult and youth criminal cases a year to the county attorney for prosecution.
Orput is a former Hennepin County homicide prosecutor who continues, despite being the boss in an office with eight criminal and five juvenile prosecutors, to try cases in Washington County District Court. Most recently he represented the county in an attempted murder case against Nathan A. Kluessendorf, 22, accused of trying to kill police officers in an August shootout in St. Paul Park.
"He's down there practicing the craft and being the leader," Povolny said of Orput's court appearances in Stillwater. Povolny brings a unique background, too -- he once was a Forest Lake police officer and paramedic.
Orput said prosecutors in his office, once they disposed of old cases, worked hard enough to exceed even an initial expectation of turning new cases within 14 days, Orput said.
"I'm so incredibly proud of these guys getting this down to three days," he said. "I think they bought into why it's so important to get these cases turned around."
That doesn't mean all cases go to court right away. Some take longer, such as when complex financial crimes are involved, and when Orput's office wants investigators to seek additional evidence. Awaiting DNA testing can delay decisions, and so can accident reconstructions.
But prosecutors have dropped the average so drastically -- about six-fold -- by deciding early which cases should be negotiated for guilty pleas rather than drag them through several court hearings before arriving at the same result. Defendants who comply generally receive milder penalties than if their cases were to go to trial, Orput said, and victims value quick admissions of guilt.
"They know that we mean what we say so these guys are pleading guilty early on," he said. "Time is never on the side of the prosecution. Never."
Meanwhile, Washington County prosecutors now have more jury trials on their calendars because they know from the beginning they won't go to plea, Orput said.
"We're not clogging up the trial calendar with needless negotiations," he said. "Trial day has really become trial day."
A wooden baseball bat travels through the office these days, awarded to the latest prosecutor to win a jury trial. It's a metaphor for the heavy hitting that Orput expects.
The latest owner is Andrew Jarmuz, who won it for winning a conviction for attempted auto theft.
"I think its a nice way to recognize the way the work that's being done in the office," Jarmuz said. "It's a little bit of camaraderie between those in the office."
Jarmuz said prosecutors like the quicker turnaround of cases -- and speedier decisions -- because in the end, they have stronger cases.
"You don't have to worry about witnesses falling out of touch," he said. "I think that makes for the stronger cases. From a justice standpoint, with the victims, we're making sure we're quickly dealing with a case so we can get a resolution."
He's had the bat four weeks and has won it three times. Even if he has to give it up soon, he's thrown out a challenge to his fellow prosecutors:
"I'm sure it will be coming back to me soon."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles