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Q: Who Killed Jin-Joo Byrne? 

A: Your state legislators

The NC General Assembly owes the parents of Jin-Joo Byrne an apology. Technically speaking, her accused strangler, Eugene DeMorris Evans, wrapped his hands around the 18-year-old Seattle church worker's neck and choked her to death. But for all practical purposes, the members of the state legislature killed her, particularly those who've voted on enough criminal justice system budgets to have earned themselves true culpability.

Two days before he murdered Byrne, Evans, 21, was released from jail on bond on a misdemeanor breaking and entering charge. He had been jailed 11 times since October, on everything from felony breaking and entering to felony larceny. In North Carolina, most people charged with nonviolent property crimes are out on bond before trial and on probation after conviction. It's been public policy for years in this state. It saves prison space, they say.

What fills me with rage over this incident is the attitude of many that this girl, who was going door to door raising money for the Unification Church -- led by the wacky Rev. Sun Myung Moon -- was probably a nutcase for belonging to the church anyway and that she never should have wandered into the Roseland Apartments off Pressley Road, one of Charlotte's rougher neighborhoods. It's as if one should expect to run into a dangerous repeat felon in a poor neighborhood, as if it's perfectly acceptable for him to live there, preying on his neighbors and whoever wanders by. So acceptable, in fact, that the same state criminal justice system that's responsible for protecting Charlotte's more affluent suburbs apparently bears no responsibility for prosecuting or jailing him as long as he only preys on people who don't count.

The bottom line is that when Byrne knocked on his door that day, Evans shouldn't have been home to answer. He should have long since been put in jail, where he belongs. It's where he and others like him would be if it weren't for the lack of priority the state has put on criminal justice. Thanks to the state's lopsided funding formula for our court system, counties like Mecklenburg receive far less funding relative to their population than other North Carolina counties. Legislators know this because it's been well-documented. They simply don't care. Two years ago, the Observer did an excellent piece of reporting on the subject, and since then, says Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist, little has changed. I'll repeat some of the facts here.

The Mecklenburg County DA's office has fewer prosecutors than any other US county its size and dismisses a higher percentage of serious criminal charges than all the other 99 counties in North Carolina. That means that our county's prosecutors can only pursue half the felony cases police bring them. They lack the resources to pursue four out of five alleged rapes and two out of three robberies.

Since 1990, more than 2,100 Mecklenburg suspects had been arrested at least five times for felonies. Over 150 had been arrested 10 or more times.

While the supposedly struggling state legislature recently spent $800,000 to dredge up Blackbeard's sunken ship, Gilchrist was patching the holes in the prosecutor's budget to keep his ship from sinking. Last week, Gilchrist told Creative Loafing he's managed to tape it together by seeking grants to hire additional district attorneys and then praying that the grants, which typically last two or three years, will be renewed. Every budget cycle, Gilchrist begs the legislature for more money and every time, with the exception of a few crumbs thrown our way, he is largely ignored.

Let's make this simple. The protection of North Carolina's citizens from repeat felons isn't just one of the things the legislature is supposed to do. It's the primary thing the legislature is supposed to do. Before it dredges up ships, start new engineering programs at state universities, or throws $200 million at businesses to lure them here with corporate giveaways, our criminal justice system should be properly funded.

In all the years I've been reporting in Charlotte, none of our supposed leaders in the state legislature have been able to give me a logical, rational reason why the state criminal justice system funding formula has remained unchanged. Instead, these legislators typically babble on about a lack of funds, hurricanes, lawsuits, faulty revenue projections and their general inability to do anything about the situation.

Maybe you can get a straight answer out of one of them. Call or write House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County and the most powerful member of the state house, and ask him when he is going to get the funding formula changed. His number is (919) 733-3451. His home number is (704) 847-9938. His email is jimb@ncleg.net.

It's the least we can do for Jin-Joo Byrne, a young woman who didn't deserve to die.

Reach Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com.

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