Judicial Delays in Harford

December 17, 1993

An armed robber who spent 13 months in the Harford County jail before he was convicted is appealing that jury verdict on grounds he was denied a speedy trial guaranteed by law. The right to a speedy trial is defined by Maryland law as 180 days from the date a suspect is arraigned or a lawyer appears to represent him in Circuit Court.

But it is a legal right that is sometimes bent, twisted and tempered to the convenience of a judicial system with its own priorities.

Such is the case of Douglas J. Moore, of Middle River, who was convicted of robbing a Fallston convenience store in September 1992 with a handgun. His trial was postponed by Harford Circuit judges five times for "good cause" before being heard by a jury two months ago. The judge refused to dismiss his claim that he had been denied a speedy trial. Moore asked his public defender lawyer to file an appeal of his conviction to the state Court of Appeals.

The testing of legal loopholes by convicted criminals certainly exasperates a public that looks to the judicial system for justice, not for nitpicking technicalities that thwart it. That process can be frustrating for the law enforcement and prosecution arms of the legal system, as well.

But the repeated lack of a judge or jury or courtroom to try a defendant within the prescribed time is also an affront to the concept of justice. If the defendant is responsible for the delays, that is one thing; the clock won't keep running toward the 180-day deadline.

But if the judicial system is responsible, that is another situation. Even if the defendant has been identified by the victim and photographed on closed camera, as Moore was.

Harford County has four Circuit Court judges assigned, and an annual load of 7,000 civil and criminal cases. With vacations, illness and other excuses, they can't possibly work through the active dockets. Finding enough jurors for each possible case is also a problem, as is finding a room to conduct the jury selection process.

These limitations notwithstanding, the government has an obligation to bring a case to trial within the legal definition. Prosecutor and court administration share that responsibility.

The use of repeated "good cause" postponements in this case should be closely examined by the appeals court to instruct the lower courts on their strict obligations to this fundamental protection of our legal system.

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