Since a new district attorney took office in January, the Macon Judicial Circuit has discovered hundreds of old cases that have sat dormant, many of them past the statute of limitations for prosecution.
The cases were discovered amid turnover in the office. Seven prosecutors have left since David Cooke was elected last year.
Many of the dormant cases have been dismissed because of a lack of evidence or because witnesses have died or cant be located, Cooke said.
He said its unclear how many of the dormant cases that have been dismissed have helped to reduce the Bibb County jail population in recent months.
As a whole, the prosecutors in the circuit -- which handles cases in Bibb, Crawford and Peach counties -- werent being held accountable before his taking office, Cooke said.
Among the cases recently discovered by prosecutors is the 1993 murder of 36-year-old Harlene Brewster. Although Brewsters boyfriend, William Fields, was charged with murder, the case wasnt presented to a grand jury, according to district attorneys office records.
A friend of Brewsters found her body July 4, 1993, after arriving at the home on Macons Virginia Avenue and being led into a bedroom by Brewsters 17-month-old child. Brewster was face down at the foot of a bed wearing a nightgown. A bag was over her head and a telephone cord was wrapped around her neck, according to a district attorneys office memo.
A witness saw Brewster and Fields arguing a few hours before she was found dead. The witness told authorities he saw Brewster fall to the floor, limp, with something around her neck.
The case was discovered in February 2013, according to an April 19 memo.
Earlier this year, a prosecutor tracked down witnesses and the investigating police officer to see if the case could still be taken to trial. While investigating the case, the prosecutor learned that Fields had died in 2003 at the age of 47. His death certificate shows he died of cardiac arrest at his home on Brady Street in Macon, according to district attorneys office records.
When interviewed by police on the day Brewsters body was discovered, Fields denied killing Brewster, according to his police statement.
Charles Weston, who served as district attorney from 1994 to 2000, said there is no way anybody can go back 20 years and say what happened with any particular case.
Weston took office after the December 1993 death of District Attorney Willis Sparks.
During the entire time I was in the office, everyone was held accountable, said Weston, who worked as chief assistant district attorney before becoming the offices boss.
Cooke said a 2010 Peach County murder case also was discovered recently in a drawer. The case was indicted on May 13, 2013, shortly after the records were discovered.
Traci Asberry, 40, is charged with murder in the Dec. 28, 2010, death of her 8-year-old daughter, Hannah Bayne. The indictment alleges Asberry with criminal negligence allowed the child to consume a lethal amount of methadone.
Asberry and her daughter were staying at a Knights Inn on the Ga. 247 Connector when an ambulance was dispatched to an overdose. Warner Robins police investigated the girls death and charged Asberry with cruelty to children.
Asberry posted bond, but the case never moved forward.
A woman murdered her child and the file sat in a drawer for two years, Cooke said.
Former District Attorney Greg Winters disputes that the case wasnt actively being worked on during his two-year administration. He said he discussed the case with the prosecutor handling it in 2012 and the case was scheduled to be presented to a grand jury in 2013.
Any implication it was misplaced or not actively being worked on is false, Winters said.
Winters lost the November 2012 election to Cooke, who took office Jan. 1.
Without having more specific information about other cases, Winters said he couldnt comment.
Winters said the number of cases prosecutors indicted doubled between 2011 and 2012.
As district attorney, he periodically met with law enforcement to talk about how cases were being handled and received compliments on prosecutors work, he said.
Winters said he and his staff met with victims and their families to address any concerns they might have had.
Howard Simms, who served as district attorney between Weston and Winters, said hes not aware that any cases sat dormant during his administration.
If somebody called me about a case that wasnt being prosecuted, I would have looked into it, Simms said. Simms stepped down from his job as district attorney to run for a Superior Court judgeship in 2010.
Despite the turnover in assistant district attorneys, Cooke said his staff includes some very fine prosecutors.
They understand they are being held to a higher standard. I expect them to get justice for the victims and the community as quickly as possible, and theyre doing it, Cooke said.
In cases in which the evidence isnt sufficient to take a case to court, prosecutors know they must dismiss the case, he said.
But if we can go forward on a case and get justice for the victims, the assistant district attorneys know I want to go forward, Cooke said.
The goal is to provide safety for the community and prevent a backlog of cases, he said.
This is about protecting families, Cooke said. The best way to do that is to make sure the prosecutors are working hard from the beginning.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.