GREAT BEND — The feud between the Barton County Sheriff and County Attorney continues.
On Tuesday, Barton County Attorney Amy Mellor responded to a press release issued Friday by Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir.
Bellendir’s statement regarded the dismissal of an aggravated arson charge the previous day against Zachariah Dittrick at the beginning of what was scheduled as a preliminary hearing in Barton County District Court. Mellor stated that this charge was dismissed due to a miscommunication, not through the fault of her office.
Dittrick was never released from jail, as he is also being held in another Barton County District Court case in which he is charged with aggravated domestic battery. His bond set at $20,000.00 in that case.
Mellor explained that, in Kansas, when a person is charged with one or more felony crimes, the case is set for a preliminary hearing. At that hearing, a judge determines whether there is probable cause to hold the person for trial on those charges. The hearing judge does not, however, determine guilt or innocence.
“That’s what a trial will be about,” Mellor said.
Kansas law also dictates that the first preliminary hearing must be scheduled within 14 days of a defendant’s first appearance before a judge. The first appearance is usually the time when a defendant is advised of the charges against him or her.
Mellor continued, “When the preliminary hearing is initially set, it’s usually added to a docket that is already crowded with other cases. Typically, there may be 15 to 20 preliminary hearings that are already set on a particular day prior to another case’s first setting being added to that docket. Since it is impossible to conduct even the 15 to 20 hearings that are previously set in the seven-hour period that a judge is available for hearings, it’s not unusual for a preliminary hearing on the docket for the first time to not be heard in favor of the other cases that have been there longer. Under those circumstances, for cases that are set for the first time, subpoenas are not normally issued.”
Mellor stated the cases are moved along as quickly as possible, but the lack of time and the complexity of some of the cases often prevents that from happening. Additionally, the schedules of the defense attorneys are also crowded.
“It’s frustrating for us, for the judges, the defense attorneys, and for the people whom we call as witnesses,” Mellor said. “But when we know that a case is not going to be heard due to an overcrowded docket or lack of time, we don’t issue subpoenas to avoid inconveniencing people who would be required to take time away from their work. We don’t want to unnecessarily take law enforcement officers away from their duties for the same reason.”
Judge Richard Burgess notified Sheriff Bellendir on Monday, Sept. 17, that Dittrick’s case was dismissed due to a miscommunication, and that it was not the fault of Mellor or her office.
Charges were refiled against Dittrick on the same day. His bond is set at $100,000 in this case, in addition to the $20,000 in his aggravated domestic battery case.
Dittrick and co-defendant Oliver Guyton Jr., both face charges of aggravated arson, arising from an incident in the Barton County jail, which occurred in mid-August.
Mellor reiterated many times when news releases are made regarding issues concerning court cases in which she or one of her assistant county attorneys are prosecuting, she is not at liberty to refute accusations made against her or her office. Kansas attorneys must adhere to the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct, which often prohibits any response to comments, accusations and criticism against a county or district attorney.
“By saying what I’m saying now, I’m not commenting on the particular details of any case,” Mellor stated. “However, the working of the court system and the administration of justice can often seem confusing to everyone not familiar with them. After reading the sheriff’s press release last week, I felt that a response was needed in order to clear the air and help everyone understand that we are working as hard as possible to file and keep cases on track.”
According to the Barton County Attorney’s Office, over 400 criminal cases have been filed in 2018 alone; many of them have already been closed with pleas taken and sentences issued.
“At this moment, we also have an active trial docket, with 21 jury trials currently set to be heard in the next couple of months,” Mellor said. “Jury trials require an enourmous amount of time for preparation, and take the attorney handling the case away from their other duties, such as preliminary hearings. In addition to these cases, we still must continue to deal with our traffic and juvenile case loads, not to mention the criminal docket.” And, she added, the County Attorney’s Office is representing the State of Kansas in over a dozen cases that are currently being appealed by defendants who have been convicted and sentenced.
“That’s a lot for four attorneys and a staff of nine support persons,” Mellor said. “Most counties with the case load that Barton County has employs five or six attorneys, and several additional support staff. But we’re working as hard as possible with the resources we have to continue with the administration of justice.”