Judge shortage causes important cases to drag on for years

A Peachtree City man was accused of sexually abusing four girls in 2014. He still has not been tried in court.

On Feb. 12, 2015, a Peachtree City man, Thomas Zerbarini, was indicted for aggravated child molestation, incest, two counts of child molestation, and one count of enticing a child for indecent purposes.

He was first arrested on Oct. 6, 2014. Nearly three years have passed since then, and Zerbarini is still waiting for his day in court.

The delay has inconvenienced all parties involved. The public must deal with knowing a man accused of multiple instances of sexual abuse is not in jail, as the alleged victims wait for justice. Meanwhile, Zerbarini, who maintains his innocence, has had his four children taken away from him and has struggled to make a decent living as a pilot because of travel restrictions and his criminal record.

Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ben Coker wants Zerbarini to be tried in court, and Atlanta-based defense attorney Bernard Brody wants to bring his client to court so he can be exonerated of the crimes he’s charged with. Griffin Judicial Circuit Court Judge Mack Crawford wants to hear the case, but with the trial estimated to last two weeks, not including motions hearings, he doesn’t have the time.

“We all have the same goal,” Crawford said. “But there are a lot of moving parts that need to be in place to make it work.”

No one involved is optimistic the case will go to trial this year. It’s part of a larger issue in Fayette County, where there are too many cases and not enough judges to hear them. As a result, potential criminals often wait years to be tried in court.

‘Ready and anxious’

Each month, the case keeps getting put off, and a man accused of heinous crimes waits for an opportunity to prove he did nothing wrong.

The details of the accusations in court records are graphic—we’ve chosen to leave the descriptions of the alleged child molestation out of the story—and come from four different people. Two girls, unrelated, ages 6 and 9, claimed that Zerbarini sexually abused them. One woman, an extended relative, and a second woman, each stated Zerbarini sexually abused them when they were children.

According to Zerbarini’s personal website, July 15, 2014 was the last time Zerbarini saw his four children. He recounts on a post three years later what each of his children were doing the day he said goodbye. The phrase on his website’s homepage reads “A Happy Family is A Loving Family.”

Brody said the case is “complicated,” but he believes “wholeheartedly” that Zerbarini is innocent and intends to prove his innocence  once he receives the opportunity to do so.

“This delay doesn’t help us at all. It hurts us in a variety of ways,” Brody said.

Three parties are complicit in the delay to take the Zerbarini case to trial. The first is Brody, when he had a conflict on Sept. 3, 2015 with another case, and the trial had to be pushed back. Since then, Brody said, he’s been asking for a trial.

The next is the change in the person representing the prosecution, but Coker has been in his position since the beginning of the year. He’s been putting the trial on the calendar ever since he made a motion to specially set the trial on March 1.

ZERBARINI

“We remain ready and anxious to try this case on behalf of the state and the victims,” Coker said. “It’s a very important case, and we will be continuing to put it on the calendar every month until it’s set for trial.”

Now, the ball is in Crawford’s court, but there’s not much he can do right now to score a trial date.

‘Wholeheartedly welcome my day in court’

Crawford hears cases in multiple counties, but his office is located in Pike County, about 45 minutes from Fayette County. His office desk in the antiquated Pike County courthouse is piled high with papers detailing cases, both criminal and civil.

In both Pike and Fayette County, Crawford shares his courtroom with another judge. He doesn’t have a two-week window to hear the Zerbarini case until December, right before Christmas. With it being so close to the holidays, Crawford is doubtful there will be jurors available to bring the case to trial.

“I need more hours in the day, and I need many, many more days in court,” Crawford said.

On his website, Zerbarini keeps a count of how long it’s been since he’s seen his kids. Today is the 1,122nd day since he’s seen them.

He claims that that his children were ripped from their loving home under “False Allegations of Abuse and Infedility.” Zerbarini’s children, he says, are innocent victims of “mean-spirited adults.”

“Once the evidence does come out, I think it’ll be pretty obvious why these allegations have been made and why he’s not guilty of them,” Brody said.

One sentence on Zerbarini’s website in a paragraph of its own echoes the sentiments of the prosecution, the defense, Crawford and countless others.

“I wholeheartedly welcome my day in court.”

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About

Justin Fedich is a reporter for the Fayette County News. He has been a reporter for various papers around the Southeast, including the Athens Banner-Herald and the Selma Times-Journal. Justin is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in digital and broadcast journalism and a sports media certificate.


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