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The speed of case disposition in Orange County -- the time it takes to go to trial after arrest -- not only affects the lives of suspects and victims, but it often affects the quality of the trial as well.

Orange County cases go to trial in a respectable amount of time, District Attorney Carl Fox said.

"We rank about seventh position out of 39 in the entire state in terms of case disposition," Fox said.

Robert Farb, professor of law and government at the UNC Institute of Government, where court personnel are trained, said the lack of a speedy trial would be the most detrimental in murder cases, when the suspect could be in jail for two or three years awaiting trial.

"Sometimes, if someone is in jail awaiting trial, they're awaiting their liberty," he said.

The set date for a disposition varies by case and is scheduled by the court, the district attorney and the defense based on a number of factors: availability of witnesses, preparation of the defense, whether the suspect pleads insanity, evidence and its analyses, and the types of charges, Fox said.

Charges such as murder, rape and sexual offense take much more time because they involve evidence that requires more analysis, Fox said.

A majority of Orange County cases go to trial in what Fox calls an "excellent" time frame: rape and sexual offense within 131 days, robbery within 70 days, larceny within 67 days, arson within 27 days and forgery within 77 days, according to an Orange County Superior Court Criminal Aging Analysis report from July through December.

Only one murder case was analyzed in this report, and its length was 269 days, which Fox does not consider to be excellent. But this case is by no means the most lengthy.

Robert Warren Pratt, 24, of Mebane is currently in Orange County Jail awaiting trial. Pratt was arrested Feb. 1, 1999 for three counts of first-degree kidnapping, one count of first-degree rape and two counts of first-degree sexual offense in a crime that occurred Sept. 13, 1995, in Duke Forest on Whitfield Road, officials said.

Delays in the trial for this case started, Fox said, because another person was initially charged with the crimes. Evidence had to be presented to clear the other individual before Pratt could be arrested, which took about 90 days from the time the crime was committed.

But Pratt's trial has had delays of its own. He was originally in custody in Nash Correctional Institute, a closed-custody facility about 90 miles from Hillsborough, which made it difficult for the defense to talk to him, Fox said. In addition, his attorney changed employment during the course of the investigation.

Fox also said that because the state made a motion for Pratt to be examined by state psychiatrists as a result of his intent to plead insanity, there was a delay in transferring his medical records from Dorothea Dix Hospital. These records then needed to be examined by the defense's psychiatrist.

Another delay was caused by the witnesses being out of state, he said.

"It's a combination of things that don't normally happen," Fox said.

After spending more than two years in jail, Pratt is finally scheduled to appear in court April 24 for a competency hearing to determine his mental status, officials said.

Not only has Pratt displayed the need for rapid case disposition, the victims of the crimes and their families depend on it for closure.

"Victims of a crime can be very unhappy if cases are not tried in a prompt manner," Farb said. "Resolution brings finality."

Delayed case dispositions can also jeopardize convictions, Farb said, which is unfortunate for the victims and the rest of society.

"You could potentially lose your witness and your defense if they (the suspects) are gone a long time," Farb said.

Speed has also been known to be a factor in causing district attorneys to plea bargain rather than go to trial, Superior Court Clerk Joan Terry said.

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"It all depends on the case, what kind, the witnesses and the victims, who may want to get it over with quicker," Terry said.

But Farb said plea bargaining occurs when defendants admit to being guilty or the state offers them a lesser plea.

Both Farb and Terry agree that plea bargaining is necessary.

"If everyone pled 'not guilty' and there were no plea bargains, there is no way we could ever keep afloat," Terry said.

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