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You may remember in the news some time ago a fatal shooting allegedly motivated by the victim texting in a movie theater. Well, a date for the trial has finally been set - more than 5 years after the incident! The defendant is in his mid 70s and may well die before the case against him concludes. You can see the long history of this particular case detailed here: http://www.curtisreevestrial.com/ Why is it taking so long to bring this case to trial?

Justice delayed is justice denied. So how and why can criminal trials be delayed for years? I would think there should mechanisms to prevent or punish excessive delays. For example, revoking bail would mean the defendant does not benefit from the delay in the above example. Is there any legal mechanism to prevent excessive delays?

  • Why the downvote? – Thomas supports Monica Nov 21 '18 at 8:23
  • This question really needs to be more tightly focussed. "Why are cases delayed?" is a political rather than legal question: "Why has this case been delayed?" is not something any of us can answer properly. And government action would seem to mean either providing vastly more resources to the court system or preventing lawyers (who are paid to game the system) from gaming the system to their client's advantage; neither seems practical. – Tim Lymington Nov 21 '18 at 10:30
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    "Why the downvote?" Because some users cannot accept the fact that the judicial system of the US is broken. I also get downvotes when I make assertions (premised on verifiable police reports, prosecutor's letter, judicial decisions, etc.) that pinpoint the judiciary's moral unfitness. I upvoted your answer, though, because it touches on a serious issue. – Iñaki Viggers Nov 21 '18 at 10:58
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    @IñakiViggers That's called cherry picking. All it proves is that the judiciary is staffed and run by humans. Some people are just...not very good people. It doesn't establish unfitness or broad corruption. – zibadawa timmy Nov 21 '18 at 13:19
  • @zibadawatimmy My answer would be much longer if I were to detail many other instances of "not very good" judges, and yet those who rush to defend the judiciary would still deny its unfitness or broad corruption. I have no problem conceding that there are judges with morals, but I am addressing the OP's question about the multi-year delays of judicial proceedings. – Iñaki Viggers Nov 21 '18 at 14:24
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There is a right under the United States Constitution to a speedy trial in criminal cases, and that right applies via 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution to state governments.

The federal government, and every U.S. state operationalized that constitutional right through a statute setting strict deadlines by which to conduct a trial in criminal cases, which so long as it is compliant with case law regarding the longest delays that are constitutionally permissible, will control.

This right can be, and routinely is, waived by mutual agreement of the attorneys for the prosecution and the defense.

The defense does this both because (1) if their client is out on bail, this secured certain freedom until the trial, and (2) defense attorneys hope that an otherwise solid case that would result in a conviction if brought to trial quickly, might deteriorate with delays, for example, due to witnesses becoming unavailable or forgetting what they saw, and evidence being misplaced.

Usually, the defense does this when the defense believes that a conviction is likely if the defendant take the case to trial, but the client is not willing to accept the best plea bargain offered by the prosecution (which in a strong case for the prosecution may be simply the right to make an unconditional plea of guilty to all charges filed).

Prosecutors do this because (1) if the defendant is incarcerated, they will have caused the defendant to serve time without regarding to a trial outcome and this may cause a fairly just time served sentence in the eyes of the prosecutor which can be used in a plea bargain, and (2) prosecutors are very busy and need more time to prepare their cases for trial. Prosecutors also worry that failure to allow the defendant sufficient time to prepare when the defendant requests it, could be a basis for an appeal overturning the conviction in a high profile, high stakes case. Prosecutors most often favor extensions of time when the defendant is incarcerated pending trial and when their case is weak.

The last time I looked there was some division of authority over the question of whether a prosecutor had a right to insist on a speedy trial, or if this right belonged only to defendants. My recollection is that the majority rule was that the prosecution could also insist on a speedy trial.

Of course, it is entirely possible for the defense to think it has a weak case and for the prosecution to also think that it has a weak case, even though those things generally aren't simultaneously true. This is mostly because evaluating the strength of a case is a subjective matter that requires weighing myriad factors that go into the strength of a case.

Extensions of the speedy trial deadlines secured with the consent of defense counsel do not count against the time limits, nor do delays caused by certain tactics of the defense. But, the defense can stop granting extensions of time and force a trial at any time.

Usually, it is considered an appealable abuse of discretion for a judge to insist that a case go to trial in the face of a stipulation of both the prosecution and defense counsel to continue a trial and waive the right to a speedy trial, so long as some plausible reason is provided to the court to justify the delay.

But, there was one notable case where the defense counsel (for some very good reasons) was agreeing to extensions of the speedy trial deadline over the express direction of his client who stated repeatedly in open court in a federal criminal prosecution in the Second Circuit that he wanted to exercise his right to a speedy trial and have a trial as soon as possible. In that case, after many years, the judge was ultimately required to dismiss the case because the right to a speedy trial was denied, because the client and not the defense attorney is ultimately the person who has the right to decide whether or not to invoke the right to a speedy trial and the client has a unilateral right to refuse to grant further extensions of the speedy trial deadlines.

In the case you mention, the defense waived the right to a speedy trial in writing on July 7, 2014 after previously having done so orally in March of 2014. The defense counsel is likely doing everything it can to delay the trial so that their client can remain free on bail for what may be a substantial share of the rest of their client's life.

Approximately three years of the pre-trial proceedings involved pre-trial "discovery" which involved document disclosure by the prosecution and pre-trial depositions of the numerous witnesses identified by the prosecution in the case. Another year or so was devoted to motions practice over excluding evidence and related to procedural provisions for claiming self-defense prior to trial under Florida law. Once those matters we wrapped up and the case was actually ready to be tried, the judge set the case for the first available slot on the court calendar with enough time to select a jury and hear the lengthy presentation of evidence at trial.

Higher Level Analysis

The answer above is the canonical one and mechanically explains the result.

At a deeper level, scholarship about American civil and criminal procedure also blames the extreme finality of U.S. jury trials for the delays.

In most Continental European systems, if you don't like the result of your first trial, you can have a second trial in a higher court at which not just the law, but the evidence may be reconsidered. So, a surprise in the first trial isn't a catastrophe.

In contrast, in a U.S. jury trial, factual findings of a jury can't be reconsidered on appeal, only legal decisions of the judge, and an acquittal can't be appealed at all. So, a huge amount of time has to be invested by both sides in preparing for highly unlikely possibilities at trial because once it starts you only have one shot and there is little or no time to react to surprises. In the end, as a result, it often takes longer to conduct one trial in the U.S. than it would to conduct an initial trial and a trial de novo in a higher court on appeal in European criminal cases.

  • Thanks! You raise very interesting points. I understand that a lot of things have happened in the example case, but it's hard to believe that this would need to take 5 years, especially as some could have been done in parallel rather than sequentially. – Thomas supports Monica Nov 22 '18 at 1:17
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    Your final paragraph is true of all common law jurisdictions. – Dale M Nov 22 '18 at 1:43
  • @Thomas Another point to consider is that a public defender in a capital case in Florida is given a very small budget to mount a defense. – ohwilleke Nov 22 '18 at 3:03
  • One thing that should be pointed out is that Brady Disclosures are required for all Criminal Cases in the United States, which means the Prosecution must allow the defense access to all evidence it has (even if they don't intend to use the evidence at trial) prior to the case and allow for the defense to independently verify it for authenticity in findings. – hszmv Sep 6 '19 at 15:25
  • @hszmv The defense does have to ask for it, while is done as a matter of course in serious offenses where someone is represented by counsel, but is often overlooked in minor offenses and when the defendant is pro se. Also, Brady violations are common and lead to a great many wrongful convictions which are as a practical matter hard to overturn in a collateral attack. – ohwilleke Sep 8 '19 at 23:01
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Why is it taking so long to bring this case to trial?

The pretext is "due process". However, judges themselves are the actual culprits of these multi-year delays. After all, they are the decision makers as to whether grant a defendant's motions that keep prolonging the proceedings at issue.

Whether elected or appointed to "serve" in the judiciary, the issue boils down to traffic of influences. This eyebrow-raising article reads:

"It's well known that certain legal firms and legal family dynasties that support a judge's campaign do better in front of those judges," said one legal scholar who has closely observed the Washtenaw County courts, "and that attorneys who don’t endorse and fund those campaigns do worse."

That reality puts a prosecutor or a pro se plaintiff at disadvantage, because the judge will cater to those he or she deems beneficial to his or her stay in judicial office. And the fact that most voters do not even pay attention to judicial elections is unfortunate because it only exacerbates the influence a group of lawyers can have on the judiciary.

Besides the aforementioned bias, some judges have very lucrative part-time jobs as lecturers, which appears aimed at earning their favors on the bench. See Michigan judge Timothy Connors, who currently presides a case where his employer University of Michigan is the defendant: 16-1111-CD, Kurashige vs. University of Michigan.

That employment relationship should have prompted both the University and the judge toward the latter's recusal from the start. But the University allowed its part-time employee to be judge-and-part in the lawsuit. Surprisingly, this time judge Connors appears to side with the plaintiff (although the outcome is still in the air), and the last column reflecting a decrease of 67.08% in the judge's annualized salary as lecturer appears to be the effect of his "insubordination" to his employer University of Michigan.

Do not think judge Connnors is an exemplary judge, though. He has a history of favoring people guilty of criminal contempt (as reflected here and here), preceded by a forced recusal or "administrative re-assignment" in another case

after [Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor's] noting Connors received $8,000.00 in campaign funding from the plaintiffs’ attorneys

(brackets added, see comment dated on May 19, 2014 at 9:34 pm)

Another factor for multi-year delays is that some judges' own crimes appear to make them prone to self-identification with other criminals. See 16-870-FH, People v. Stein, presided by Carol Kuhnke.

Barely two months after the case started, judge Carol Kuhnke was busted for illegal possession of narcotics. Here you can find excerpts of the police report and a letter by the special prosecutor. Instead of granting the prosecutor's motion for recusal (since the police who busted judge Kuhnke coincidentally is a prosecutor's witness in 16-870-FH), judge Kuhnke keeps granting defense counsel's requests to postpone and extending conditions of release of her look-alike.

Is there any legal mechanism to prevent excessive delays?

Yes. There are multiple clauses in procedural law giving a judge discretion to shorten or lengthen deadlines and schedules. But the aforementioned incentives (and possibly additional ones) prompt many judges to delay/deny rather than expedite the administration of justice.

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