Judge vows crackdown on trial delays in city

Postponements might force murder charges to be dropped

January 05, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The new top criminal judge for Baltimore's Circuit Court will begin limiting the number of times cases can be postponed before trial as a way to slash backlog and reclaim control of the city's beleaguered court system.

Judge David B. Mitchell's efforts come as murder charges against four defendants might be dismissed today because their cases were postponed multiple times -- 15 times for one defendant -- over the past three years.

"We have to start putting these people into courtrooms," said Mitchell, who recently assumed the job of administrative judge for the criminal docket. "Too many cases are prepared to be postponed rather than prepared to go to trial."

Circuit Court records show that 43 percent of the nearly 30,000 criminal cases in the first 10 months of 1998 were postponed.

In a memo dated Thursday, Mitchell, whose duties include signing off on all postponements, told judges and court officials that he planned to reject some requests for delay or reroute cases to other courtrooms.

Defendants who appear for trial repeatedly without an attorney and ask for a delay will be told that they have waived their right to a lawyer, he said. Such delay petitions accounted for one-quarter of postponements in September, he said.

Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, chief of the court, which has 5,000 pending cases, applauded Mitchell's move.

"There are just far too many postponements," Kaplan said. "There just shouldn't be these delays."

`Speedy trial' rule

Trial delays can imperil cases that by law must be tried within six months or the charges can be dropped.

Donte Spivey, 22, and three others have been awaiting trial on murder charges for three years. Yesterday in Circuit Court, their attorneys argued that their cases should be dismissed because they have been in the system so long.

None of the defendants has waived the right to a "speedy trial," said Warren A. Brown, who represents Jay Anderson.

Decision today

Judge Roger W. Brown is expected to rule on the request this morning. Court records show that Spivey's case was postponed 15 times -- 12 times after the speedy trial deadline of Aug. 9, 1996, had expired.

The four are accused of killing 21-year-old Shawn Louis Suggs in October 1995 in the 3400 block of Auchentoroly Terrace. Court records accuse the four of ambushing Suggs as he tried to get into his car and shooting him four times.

The records show that the case was postponed at least seven times because the courtroom was not available. In other postponements, one of the four defense attorneys, or the prosecutor, was in another trial or unavailable. Once, prosecutors asked for a delay to locate their eyewitness.

Prosecutors recently requested another delay because one of their witnesses was killed by an intruder and they needed to find the transcript of his earlier testimony.

In the time that he has been awaiting trial, Spivey has been accused of in another killing.

The case of the twins

The Sun yesterday highlighted another case hamstrung by delays.

Identical twins Charles and James Bolner, 40, have been happily waiting for their trial on drug distribution for four years. The brothers, the longest-term residents of the Baltimore City Detention Center whose case is the oldest in the Circuit Court system, have had their cases postponed 13 times -- largely at their request.

The brothers, their attorney says, would have pleaded guilty if negotiations with prosecutors had not broken down. While they await trial, the brothers say they like the city lockup better than state prison, where they would be sent after conviction. They think the jail offers them more opportunities to shave time off their sentences.

The attorney for Charles Bolner wants the charges dismissed because he was not tried in a timely manner. James S. Salkin, who won two postponements because of what he termed "prepaid vacations," calls the delay "unconscionable." His motion, filed Dec. 28, will likely be heard before the case goes to trial Jan. 20.

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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