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I am not a lawyer and TV has definitely not been an accurate representation of the law. So I'm hoping to get some clarification on things here:

  • Today we learned that the person who committed the Parkland murders is pleading guilty, more than 3 1/2 years after the fact.
  • The person guilty of the Charleston Church Shooting in July 2015 was finally convicted of it in December 2016, nearly 1 1/2 years after the fact.
  • The person guilty of the Aurora theater shooting in July 2012 was finally convicted of it in July 2014, nearly 2 years after the fact.
  • The person guilty of the Tree of Life shooting in October 2018 has still not been convicted nearly 3 years later.

I understand the notion that it takes time to gather evidence, complete investigations, interview witnesses, etc. but in these described situations, said evidence is literally all right there. Furthermore, I am under the impression that when these types of attacks occur, a lot of resources are made available to expedite processing evidence.

However, on the same note, when 30 survivors can all point at the same person and say, "That's the jackass with the assault rifle,"; and here's a whole live video feed of the attack; and here's their manifesto from their computer; and here's the police dash cam footage of when they arrested this person who was in full body armor. Part of me wonders, isn't that sufficient to get this done within 6 months? Are you wasting time getting DNA test results on each individual shell casing?

Given that some of these convictions take more than 3 years to get, I have to wonder what the heck the prosecution is doing.

Can someone explain to me the full process to help me make sense of these timelines?

REQUEST TO EDITORS: PLEASE DO NOT EDIT IN NAMES OF ANY OF THESE SHOOTERS.

4 Answers 4

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You've got four cases there with four different reasons for substantial delays:

  • In the case of the Aurora theater shooting, the shooter pled not guilty by reason of insanity.

There's no doubt about who did it, but doubt was raised about the mental status of the shooter. Murder is not a strict liability crime, so the ability of the defendant to form the intent to commit the crime is relevant.

  • In the case of the Charleston church shooting, the defendant was twice evaluated for competence to stand trial.

Again, no doubt about who did it, but most if not all jurisdictions require a defendant to be sufficiently sane to participate in their defense.

  • In the case of the Parkland shooting, the initial delay was confusion over who the defense lawyer would be.

Florida will only provide a public defender to someone who cannot afford their own defense lawyer, and it took nearly a year to determine that the defendant had inherited enough money to afford a private lawyer. Due to this delay, the trial was initially scheduled for mid-2020, which caused it to be delayed by the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • In the case of the Tree of Life shooting, it appears to be straight-up delaying tactics by the defense.

There are a great many motions, appeals of motions, requests for delay, and other things a lawyer can do to slow things down. Since the defendant is currently being held without bail, the prosecution probably isn't strongly motivated to speed things up.

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  • Can you expand this to provide information on what pre-trial tasks need to be completed and how long it takes to resolve them? Oct 17, 2021 at 12:33
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There can be many reasons for delays. The answer by Mark indicates some of the specific reasons in the specific cases mentioned in the question.

I would add that what seems to be an obvious case isn't always so obvious when it is thoroughly investigated, either in terms of who did what, or the mental state of the people involved. Thus the procedures are designed to ensure that the right person is convicted, and that all possible rights of an accused are protected. This can take a good deal of time.

Also, this is picking four particular cases which may well not be a representative sample. If one picked a random set of murder cases, say, or a random set that fit some particular criterion, the results might be different.

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Why would a defendant want to delay a verdict? One reason that may often apply to scenarios in which a defendant expects to be convicted and sentenced to prison: jail is better than prison, and time served in jail before sentencing is applied towards any prison sentence. (Before trial and sentencing a defendant who is detained is held in "jail," which is supposed to be better than prison because it is full of people who have not been found guilty of the crime for which they are awaiting trial; whereas "prison" is supposed to be populated only by convicts.)

Why would a prosecutor want to delay a verdict? A cynic might observe that prosecutors get paid no matter how slowly they do their work. A pragmatist might note that cases are never won by speedy prosecution, but that cases can be lost due to carelessness in process.

Why does the justice system allow "obviously guilty" defendants to prolong the process? Well ... the judiciary has never complained of having too many resources and not enough work. The "system" is also full of legitimate pretexts for "continuing" the process. Therefore: when a defendant seeks a continuance the judge is generally happy to bump their case to the next session to make room for others that have been waiting.

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The other answers generally provide good explanations in greater detail, but a very short answer would be due process demands these delays.

A fundamental principle of the American approach to due process is that the more serious the potential penalties the government is contemplating, the more procedural safeguards we'll implement to ensure we give the right person the right punishment.

So we might spend years deciding whether a serial killer can even go on trial to begin with, but we'll stick you with a $50 parking ticket without really thinking about it.

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  • Agree generally (and +1), but the last statement is not a fair comparison. The $50 ticket can be challenged and go to court. The comparison isn't between "2 minutes to give you a ticket" vs. "3 years in court for a murder case" but rather "1 hour in court with no (realistically) appeals" vs. "3 years in court". I have challenged parking tickets and won. (And I've simply paid when I knew I was guilty.) Oct 17, 2021 at 21:59

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