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Not your average students

What began as a high school project has morphed into a quest for justice for a pair of tenacious honor students who want to change the way criminal trials are calendared in North Carolina.

Peter Fortunato and Alicia Biel, both of whom are entering their junior year at the Raleigh Charter High School, began looking into who controls the criminal docket in North Carolina and how that affects the judicial system as part of a project for their honors civics and economics class.

Their research led them to one of a series of Lawyers Weekly articles about the aftermath of the Langford decision from the South Carolina Supreme Court, which held that it was unconstitutional to give prosecutors exclusive control over the docket.

The court found that such a system was ripe for abuse as it allowed prosecutors to have their cases heard by friendly judges – a process known as judge-shopping – and also delay trials while defendants languished in jail.

However, that same unconstitutional system remains in place today in the Palmetto State.

By talking with public defenders in Wake County, Fortunato and Biel found that the situation in North Carolina is very similar to what goes on south of the border. They also spoke with superior court judges and N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham-based Democrat and attorney.

“We realized that the criminal docket was one of the biggest problems for them,” Fortunato said, referring to the public defenders.

Their project officially ended with the school year, but they have been working with McKissick to draft a study bill to spur the N.C. General Assembly to take a closer look at the docket-control issue. Biel had an in with McKissick as her sister happens to be an intern at his office.

“They’re very bright young folks,” McKissick said of Biel and Fortunato. “Prosecutors in this state have a great deal of leeway and control over when they bring up cases and what judges they bring them before. It’s certainly worth looking at.”

It’s too late to file the study bill this year. But McKissick said the study could be added to a larger bill encompassing multiple studies, rather than an individual bill, in the interim session.

Biel and Fortunato’s teacher, Melani Winter, added, “If we could get this study bill passed with McKissick’s backing it’s something that the Legislature could really take on. It would be a pretty amazing thing for these students to see that change affected.”

Biel was unavailable for an interview. But Fortunato said her work on the project has her thinking about going to law school. He’s considering a different career path.

The bar would be lucky to have either of them.

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