Harford courts struggle to provide 'speedy trial' Heavy caseload among factors

October 31, 1993|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

The Harford Circuit Court, swamped with about 7,000 cases annually, has a tough time complying with Maryland law regarding speedy trials for some criminal defendants.

State law requires that defendants in criminal cases originating in Circuit Court have their cases heard within 180 days of the date they are arraigned or an attorney enters an appearance on their behalf.

Civil and juvenile filings are included in the average annual total, but the most recent statistics available from the state Administrative Office of the Courts in Annapolis listed 2,601 active criminal cases in Harford County through August.

Statistics are not available to indicate how many cases go to trial or are scheduled for trial in an average year. Cases often get postponed, so many are scheduled two, three or more times before a trial starts.

The state's attorney's office for Harford does track its criminal cases, with a careful eye on the 180-day speedy trial law.

Defendants may waive their right to a speedy trial, and the 180-day rule does allow cases to be delayed for "good cause."

But what is "good cause"?

In Harford Circuit Court, defendants often appear for their trial and learn that no judge or jury is available to hear their case.

Is that "good cause"?

Joseph I. Cassilly, state's attorney for Harford, believes it is.

"It's so frustrating," Mr. Cassilly said when asked if a particular defendant has a legitimate complaint on the speedy trial issue.

"We go out of our way to get these trials set in [within 180 days], but we've got 1,500 to 2,000 criminal cases to deal with and only four judges."

"You can't do with what you ain't got," said Mr. Cassilly, his frustration spilling over.

In Harford Circuit Court, two of the four judges generally handle criminal dockets on a given day and the other two hear civil cases.

When judges take vacations, no trials are scheduled. When a judge is sick, or needs to be away for an unexpected reason, trials are postponed for "good cause."

In trying to avoid postponing trials, multiple cases are scheduled each day. If a defendant pleads guilty or the state drops charges ZTC -- requiring a short period of time to dispense with the case --

other cases are waiting for trial.

But when a defendant changes his mind on the day he was expected to accept a plea bargain and decides he wants a trial, all the cases in waiting may have to be rescheduled.

At times, prospective jurors are not summoned to the courthouse and a defendant's late change of mind forces a postponment because no jury is available to sit on the case.

"Sometimes it's a no-win situation," said Mark Nelson, an assistant state's attorney. "You call a jury in and get a plea, or you expect a plea and don't call in a jury. The only way around it is to set in multiple cases and hope to get as many completed as you can."

The Harford Circuit Court has another problem. Only three courtrooms are designed for jury trials. When 60 or more jurors must be summoned for jury duty, a large courtroom must be used for jury selection. That can consume most of a day, tying up a courtroom.

The "good cause" language in the speedy trial law may help or hurt prosecutors or defense attorneys.

While postponements allow more time to prepare a case, undue delays may mean key witnesses get away, Mr. Nelson said. They move out of town, die, or simply drop out of sight.

Prosecutors also must deal with "lost" witnesses, who may appear for a trial the first time it is scheduled and become disenchanted when it is postponed. They fail to return when the trial is rescheduled.

"Police officers may be transferred or move away and don't want to return here to testify on some minute point," Mr. Nelson said.

He has sought to get the case of Douglas Jerome Moore into a courtroom since Oct. 14, 1992, the date the defendant's 180-day clock for a speedy trial started ticking.

Moore's case, previously postponed five times for "good cause," began trial Thursday before Circuit Judge Maurice W. Baldwin.

immediately before the trial, Judge Baldwin denied motions to dismiss the case on the speedy trial issue, ruling that the prior postponements were granted for good cause.

A jury found Moore guilty Friday, and Judge Baldwin ordered a pre-sentence investigation.

Testimony at the trial showed that Moore, 30, of the first block of Ortley Court in Middle River, flashed a .32-caliber handgun and robbed the Shell Food Mart about 1 a.m. in Fallston on Sept. 4, 1992.

Police arrested Moore a short while later, recovering more than $200 and a .32-caliber handgun.

A clerk identified Moore as the man who robbed him, and the jury was shown a videotape of the robbery taken from a surveillance camera in the store.

Guilty or not, a defendant still is entitled to a speedy trial, said Robert Winkler, a public defender representing Moore. "The case definitely will be appealed on the speedy trial issue and I believe it has merit," said Mr. Winkler.

Moore has been at the Harford County Detention Center since Sept. 4, 1992. The 180-day period in which he was to have received a speedy trial began Oct. 14, 1992, and went overtime on April 12, 1993, Mr. Nelson said.

Today, 422 days after his arrest, Moore sits at the Harford County Detention Center and studies anything he can on the speedy trial issue. He has become proficient at writing his own legal opinions on the matter.

He has repeatedly chastised Mr. Winkler for not visiting him often enough at the county jail to discuss his case, yet when pressed by Judge William O. Carr on Sept. 22 to be specific on Mr. Winkler's deficiencies, Moore could not.

It's a sticky issue, but Mr. Winkler believes his client's case could be the one to force the state Court of Appeals to decide if having no judge or jury available is truly "good cause" for postponing a trial.

If the higher court decides it's not a good cause, Moore could be freed because he failed to receive a speedy trial.

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