ONLY ON 3: Wheels of justice can move slowly - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

ONLY ON 3: Wheels of justice can move slowly

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Judy Newsom hugs her son, Zachary Higdon, in a family photo. Judy Newsom hugs her son, Zachary Higdon, in a family photo.
CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -

For the families of some murder victims, the wheels of justice seem to move slowly. Channel 3 is looking into why some cases appear to get tied up in the legal system.

Lacey Liberty says the most painful chapter in her brother's story has lasted four years. If it had a title, it would be "Justice for Zach."

"I just want to see the end of it. I want to see the book closed," Liberty said. "I want to see me and my mom sitting back saying, OK, well this is what happened because my brother got murdered. That's all we want."

Zachary Higdon was murdered in 2011. Liberty and their mom found the 30-year-old shot to death inside his home on Airport Road.

"He was bright and full of color," Liberty described her older brother. "He was just, life."

The case went unsolved until last year, when police arrested an acquaintance, Jessica Sterchi. Although Liberty is pleased a suspect is behind bars, the wait for closure is a painful one.

"Here it is four years later. No one's actually convicted," she said.

The pain resurfaces with each court hearing and each time she has to face her brother's alleged killer.

"When we find out that someone is actually convicted of this and going to spend time in jail... the sentence of the road they're going to go down. It will be the close to a book that should've never been opened," Liberty said.

Zach's case is the only homicide case from 2011 still pending in court. Channel 3 has learned his family isn't alone in their wait for justice.

A June trial is set for a 2010 murder case. Two homicide cases are still pending from 2012, and nine cases continue from 2013. All solved homicide cases from 2014 and 2015 are still moving through the criminal court system.

"The reason sometimes it can take a while is because while the court process is moving, evidence is analyzed and sent off to TBI for testing. We can only provide it at the rate which it comes back to us," said Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston.

According to Pinkston, it can take 7-10 months for evidence like DNA tests to come back from the TBI Crime Lab in Nashville.

Adding to the delay, attorneys often argue over if certain evidence should be used in court. Finding a trial date that works for both sides can slow the wheels of justice. State law has no limits on rescheduling.

While delays take a toll on a victim's family, they don't help the prosecution either. Longer waits could cause some proof to unravel, and witnesses may be less willing to cooperate after time.

"They get tired of coming to court, and don't want to cooperate or come anymore. You don't want that to happen," Pinkston said.

One of the most flagrant examples of court delays in Hamilton County was resolved earlier this year. For nearly five years, John "Cutthroat" Simpson found loopholes to push back his murder trial.

Simpson was one of three men accused of killing Bernard Hughes in 2010. He delayed his trial at least five times by firing attorneys at the last minute.

"Mr. Simpson, it would appear to me you're doing everything in the world to not try your case," Judge Don Poole said during a hearing last September.

"This happened in 2010. When is this going to end? When is the closure going to come? That's all we want," Hughes' twin sister, Berlinda, told Channel 3 after another delayed hearing.

Simpson finally took a guilty plea earlier this year.

While the victim's family has rights, the defendant has them, too. If the court finds they were violated, a judge could grant a new trial and it's back to square one.

"You don't want to end up having to go through it twice," Pinkston said. "If it takes a little longer the first time, it's better than doing it two times."

In the meantime, Liberty can only wait, hoping her brother's killer is sent to prison -- and Zach's story finally sees an ending.

"It will close the chapter to my life that got opened in 2011 and has been pain and horror ever since," she said.

For the homicide cases still pending from 2010 and 2011 -- those arrests came a couple years after the crimes were committed, which helps explain their delays.

There are time constraints when it comes to prosecuting federal court cases, but the state court system does not fall under those same rules.

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