Covington County District Attorney releases annual statistics

Published 5:55 pm Tuesday, January 19, 2021

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Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell released the 2020 annual statistics for his office this week.

“I am a numbers guy,” Merrell said. “You can’t put a political spin into the numbers, so we track a lot of data.”

Merrell has released these annual type reports for almost the entirety of his tenure as District Attorney.

Primarily, the data shows that in the COVID-stricken year of 2020, the District Attorney’s Office and the Circuit Court disposed of 305 felony criminal cases.

Merrell noted that he and his two full-time prosecutors, Chief Grace Jeter and ADA Nikki Stephens handled all of those cases themselves. Of those cases, 213 were drug crimes, ranging from simple Possession of a Controlled Substance charges to much more serious Drug Trafficking crimes.

District Attorney Walt Merrell stated, “I release these statistics because I think it’s important for the public to know what’s going on in our office. We are here to serve the people of Covington County, and we feel responsible for keeping the community informed about what we’re doing. It’s also important for the public to see that criminal activity is pervasive in every community, including ours. Unfortunately for the good people of Covington County, and for my staff, these 305 cases are only those we were able to resolve this year – they do not represent those crimes committed where charges are still pending.”

Of the 305 disposed cases, 43.28% of those resulted in the defendant going to prison.  Further, 35.08% of cases received a probation disposition, and 13.12% of cases were disposed by placement of defendants in pre-trial diversion programs such as Drug Court or Veterans Court.

Circuit Court Judge Charles “Lex” Short presides over both Drug and Veterans Courts, and Merrell expressed his appreciation for “Judge Short’s willingness to work outside the box to help folks ‘fix the problem.’”    

Merrell has long been a very vocal proponent of drug rehabilitation and providing opportunities for drug users to find sobriety. By Merrell’s policy, all cases involving drug use, as opposed to drug sale or distribution, require participation in rehabilitation programs, oftentimes, defendants are required to attend residential rehab. In 2020, 57.38% of drug user defendants were required to complete a residential rehab program.  The remainder of those drug user cases was required to attend outpatient treatment through the Alabama Department of Mental Health.

“Each defendant is assessed by someone in our office and a certified substance abuse counselor, and we try to find the best treatment for their particular problem,” Merrell noted.

Of the 2020 case dispositions, Merrell commented, “I am very proud of my staff for their hard work in pushing to dispose of cases, despite court slowdowns and shutdowns because of COVID-19. We said from the beginning that we would continue to work, and so we did. 2020 certainly threw plenty of obstacles at us as we pushed forward, but I work with a great bunch of people that handled the challenges placed upon them and continued to get the job done.”

COVID-19 presented many obstacles to the court system and the District Attorney’s Office staff in 2020, and continues to interfere in normal operation of the courts. By order of the Alabama Supreme Court, many jury trial terms and grand jury terms were canceled across the state last year. It has created a backlog that the courts will likely battle to overcome well into the future.

“There is always work to be done, and we look forward to doing it. We are hopeful that this pandemic begins to wane so we can resume our ‘full speed ahead’ approach. Until then, my staff and I have resolved to plow forward doing as much as possible to continue moving cases – putting the worst of the worst in prison, praying drug users discover the meaning go hope through their time in rehab, and doing all we can to serve victims and make them whole again.”