High court hears arguments on delayed case

Molestation conviction was thrown out because of postponements

June 05, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Judges of the state's highest court heard arguments yesterday in a case whose chronic delays spotlighted congestion in Baltimore's courts and sparked major changes there.

The Maryland attorney general's office asked the Court of Appeals to reinstate the child-molestation conviction of a Baltimore County man. His lawyer, Deborah Liu, asked the court to uphold the intermediate appellate court ruling that threw out the conviction because the case had been postponed so many times in the city's Circuit Court.

When they decide, the state's top judges could make a ruling so narrow it applies only to this case or craft one that gives a fresh interpretation to what is known as the 180-day rule.

State law and court rules say a trial should be held within 180 days after arraignment unless a defendant wants the postponement or there is a good reason. In this case, defendant James T. Brown Jr. of the 1200 block of St. Agnes Lane in Baltimore County did not seek a delay. His case was postponed nine times over 16 months, largely because no circuit judge was available.

Ann N. Bosse, assistant attorney general, told the Court of Appeals that a series of 1984 rulings set a precedent for allowing a trial to begin after the 180 days in reasonable circumstances. Therefore, in the Brown case, she argued, the court should consider only the delay from the 180th day to the next trial date, which was 57 days and "not inordinate."

Liu said that missed the point. She said the trial was postponed seven times after the 180-day deadline. She argued that the reason the city court operation is being reformed is that the state's intermediate appellate court threw out the conviction because of the delays.

Though most of the judges said little during the hourlong arguments, two seemed sympathetic to Liu.

Judge Alan M. Wilner said chronic delays were tantamount to no meaningful trial date.

Judge Dale R. Cathell said, "What's the sense of having rules if they can be bypassed, statutes as well?"

Judge John C. Eldridge, who was on the top court for the 1984 decisions, said Liu was asking the court to dump those earlier rulings.

In December, the Court of Special Appeals threw out Brown's conviction and freed him, drawing attention to a clogged city court system. Brown was convicted in 1997 of molesting a 12-year-old girl and sentenced to two years in prison. Erasing the conviction, the Court of Special Appeals wrote that it was "unaware of any case that even approaches this level of delay."

Since then, the city's courts have made many changes, among them cracking down on granting postponements and bringing back retired judges to hear cases.

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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