As November ends, it would be a mistake not to note a unique and helpful story in Arizona Attorney Magazine this month. It examines a capital case crisis that gripped a county, and that was addressed in a strategic way.

The article, by two Superior Court Judges and one Commissioner, follows on a previous story that raised alarms about a huge backlog in capital cases. While carefully avoiding the debate over the propriety of the death penalty, the authors faced the question of how the justice system can render justice when so many cases are in the pipeline that may result in the ultimate penalty.

Pretty well, they conclude this month. As the article opens:

“In April and May 2009, Arizona Attorney Magazine published, in two parts, ‘The Capital Case Crisis in Maricopa County: What (Little) We Can Do About It.’ Our goal in that piece was to explain the complexities of the preparation and trial of such cases, the steps required, and the participants involved, as a way to explain why capital cases take so long to try. We also discussed how they eventually resolve at the end of a long state and federal appellate and post-conviction relief process. On average, the length of time from arrest until execution of the sentence is 20 years

“As of Aug. 31, 2008, the time frame used in the article, the capital caseload in Maricopa County Superior Court appeared dire, with few apparent options to reduce capital cases awaiting trial.

“As of July 1, 2011, almost three years later, the situation has changed drastically. This follow-up article sets forth the reasons for this turnaround and the continuing steps the court has adopted to deal with the problem of too many capital cases to try with an insufficient number of judicial officers, courtrooms, experienced lawyers and mitigation specialists. We believe that what we describe may be used as a model for other jurisdictions faced with a similar problem, now or in the future.”

The previous story (in two parts) is available online here and here.

It is hard to describe the amount of work that the authors put into these articles. Five, 10, 20 years from now, I expect that readers will turn back to these stories to view a snapshot in time—and to revisit how a court solved what appeared to be an insoluble problem.

Thank you to all the authors: Judge Bob Gottsfield, Marianne Alcorn (now deceased), Judge Douglas Rayes and Commissioner Patti Starr.