On a Monday night in July of 2021, 25-year-old Jose “Johnny” Garcia lay bleeding on the sidewalk in the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. Paramedics applied chest compressions to try to restart his heart. Despite their best efforts, the gunshot wound to his neck proved fatal. His family still feels the loss 14 months later.
His uncle Alex Garcia told NBC 7, “Can’t think right, can’t eat. Can’t sleep … our family’s really tight. It’s like you took my arm from me.”
The same goes for Stephany Martinez, the mother of Johnny’s 6-year-old daughter.
“He used to tell her he would always answer her when she would call,” Martinez said, “so it would be hard when she would ask, ‘Can we call my dad? Do angels answer phone calls? He said he would always answer my calls.’ How do you explain to a 6-year-old that’s not possible?”
Police arrested the man they say ended that possibility, Lord Gabriel. He was taken into custody in Arizona 15 hours after the shooting and has pleaded not guilty. But Gabriel has yet to face a jury.
Gabriel’s preliminary hearing has been rescheduled eight times. In fact, it was initially scheduled more than a year ago. Instead, the hearing only took place last month.
Gabriel’s case isn’t an outlier.
NBC 7 Investigates learned San Diego County has a historically high number of homicide cases waiting to go to trial. More than 250 murder cases are awaiting trial in San Diego County. Before the pandemic, that number was about half that.
The waiting game is difficult for another of Johnny Garcia’s uncles, Daniel Huerta.
“We just want something to happen,” Huerta said. “We go to court hoping that it’s now, now, now. Let’s take care of it now. Let’s put this past us. It’s a difficult thing going to court and reliving all this.”
For Huerta , every scheduled court date brings back painful flashbacks, like the hours following the shooting.
“The hospital didn’t want to give us any information,” Huerta said, barely keeping his composure. “What hurts the most is they called him John Doe.”
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan acknowledged how challenging the situation is right now.
“There’s no question that this is a very, very high-intensity time,” Stephan said. “We have double the number of homicides pending than we’ve had in the last four or five years and no additional prosecutors. It’s the same team members trying to work on double the amount of complex cases we’ve ever had.”
When COVID-19 shut down public spaces across the country, courthouses were no exception. Video conferencing moved cases along, up to a point.
“The one thing you could not do remotely is jury trials,” Stephan said.
The DA said the hardest part is explaining the delays to families without losing t…