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Woman's case to be dropped after five years

December 25, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Crystal A. Ward maintained her innocence from the beginning. Yet, only in the last week and nearly six years after the Berkeley County woman was charged with two felony counts of child abuse, has action been taken to adjudicate her case.

“There’s an order sitting before the judge to dismiss (the case),” Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Ralph Lorenzetti said in an interview Wednesday.

The charges, unbeknownst to Ward until recently, have been pending in Jefferson County Circuit Court since July 2005.

While Ward’s former boyfriend ultimately went to prison after he pleaded guilty to abusing her then 7-year-old son, she wasn’t indicted, but the case remained open and the charges appear to be pending. After checking with her court-appointed attorney about the status of her case in the months that followed, Ward said she was told she had nothing to worry about, that the charges would just go away.

They didn’t.

Last month, when an area financial services company cited her background investigation report as the reason for not hiring her, Ward thought her credit history was to blame.

“It didn’t even dawn on me that this wasn’t over with,” Ward said.
 
A second employer subsequently terminated her on Dec. 17 after she was hired contingent upon a background investigation, she said.

The background report indicated the charges were pending, but Ward said the only thing she was ever guilty of in her life was having a headlight out on her car and she said she paid the ticket.

“Now, I’m going to move on with my life,” Ward said tearfully after learning of the developments in her case last week.

“For the first time in a really long time, I’m crying tears of joy,” she said.
 
Since her arrest warrant was issued by Magistrate William E. Senseney on March 8, 2005, Ward, 35, said she went to parenting classes and counseling sessions as part of a court-ordered regiment to regain custody of her son and his older brother.
 
“I did everything the courts wanted and then some,” Ward said.

Picking up the pieces

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Ward, who worked at AB&C Group in Ranson, W.Va., when she was arrested, said she has since struggled to get a decent paying job.

“When you haven’t been convicted of a crime, I don’t see why that’s got to show up on your background,” Ward said.

Ward also expressed disappointment with the attorneys who have handled her case and wondered why she didn’t have had an opportunity to more quickly clear her name.

Ward’s court-appointed attorney, Aaron Amore, said Thursday that he wasn’t at liberty to discuss her case.

“There’s really nothing a defense attorney can do to force the prosecutor to present the case to a grand jury,” said Amore, adding that the prosecuting attorney has the prerogative to have charges dismissed.

By the numbers

Ward’s pending case has plenty of company.

According to a case record report generated last week by Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Laura Rattenni, there are more than 200 open, “bound over” cases that are older than Ward’s case, dating back to 1997. From 1997 through 2008, there were 397 open bound over cases.

Felony charges, if not dismissed, are typically bound over from magistrate court to circuit court where they are assigned a “B” case number. They remain pending in circuit court until the prosecutor’s office presents the evidence to the grand jury for indictment. If the jury returns an indictment, the case is assigned to a circuit judge and the individual is then prosecuted on the charges.

In Berkeley County, only one case opened in 2005 in circuit court still has not been closed, but none of the remaining open cases are older than 2007, according to a report generated last week by Circuit Clerk Virginia M. Sine. Through 2008, there were 50 open cases in Berkeley County.

Lorenzetti, who took office in 2009, said his office only recently acquired a case management computer system, which he said will help prosecutors better track the status of pending cases.

“The judge went through some of these one time and had us look at them,” Lorenzetti said. “His legal assistant gave me about 100 cases when I first came in and said, ‘why are these sitting around?’ We took care of those.”

The prosecuting attorney said he believes there were specific reasons each case was left open, but also noted state law does not give his office a time limit or statute of limitations to prosecute someone on a felony charge.

“We probably should look at them some more once we get our computer system up,” Lorenzetti said.   

The waiting game

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