`Swift trial' ruling voided

Court of Appeals says delay by itself doesn't matter under Md. law

Relief for court officials

Decision sets stage for possible reversal of other dismissals

July 29, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Maryland's Court of Appeals yesterday overturned a lower court's ruling that a convicted sex offender was denied a "speedy trial" under state law because his case was delayed nine times in Baltimore Circuit Court over 16 months.

The opinion issued by the state's highest court gives Baltimore judges and prosecutors some breathing room after an embarrassing courthouse crisis that shook public confidence in the justice system.

The unanimous opinion, written by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, said the sex crime conviction against James T. Brown Jr. should not have been dismissed under state law. The ruling calls into question the status of other cases recently dismissed because the suspects waited far beyond the state's 180-day "speedy trial" deadline for their trials to begin.

The appellate judges decided that it doesn't matter under state law how many times a case is delayed or how long it takes a case to finally come to trial. What matters is the reason the case was postponed beyond the deadline and the length of the delay to the next trial date.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled in December that the inability to bring a case before a judge because of busy dockets was not good reason to deny a suspect's right to a speedy trial. Those judges said the total delay should be considered -- an argument the higher court rejected yesterday.

Court officials trying to reduce the backlog of cases and bring defendants to trial on time were delighted by the ruling.

"That's a good decision," Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. told Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy at a meeting of criminal justice officials yesterday. "This will help you out, and help the court out."

The opinion sets the stage for the possible reversal of other cases that had been thrown out because of chronic trial delays.

In January, a Baltimore judge dismissed first-degree murder charges against four suspects because their trial had been delayed more than a dozen times over three years. The judge, who said the case had been delayed so long it "boggles the imagination," relied on the decision handed down in the Brown case to issue his ruling.

Prosecutors are appealing the dismissals in the murder case and said yesterday's opinion from the state's highest court will provide them with powerful ammunition to argue that the murder charges should be reinstated.

"It helps out in our appeal," said Assistant Attorney General Gary E. Bair, whose office will argue the case in September for the city prosecutors.

Some defense attorneys said yesterday that the opinion may have been inspired by politics, not the law. Court officials, including the chief judge who wrote the opinion, have come under intense pressure to reform the system since the murder charges -- and others -- were dismissed because of speedy trial violations.

"I am not so sure that legal decisions are devoid of political influences," said attorney Warren A. Brown, who represents one of the murder defendants freed in January. "If a picture is worth a million words, the picture of those two defendants running from the courthouse was probably the death knell for the Brown case."

The state's speedy trial law is designed to ensure that criminal cases are disposed of promptly. But yesterday's opinion means that if there is "good cause" to delay the trial beyond 180 days, there is no guarantee when the trial will be held.

Yesterday's opinion essentially directs complaints about long trial delays to be argued on U.S. constitutional grounds. The right to a speedy trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment is a more difficult argument for the defense. Lawyers must show that the delay has damaged their case in some way.

"It's hard to win," acknowledged Bair, the assistant attorney general.

In the Brown sex case, defense lawyers argued that their client's federal and state rights to a speedy trial had been violated. The case was delayed seven times because no judge was available to hear it. On two other occasions, either the prosecutor or the defense lawyer was unavailable on the trial date.

The Court of Special Appeals did not rule on the constitutional issue when it dismissed the sex case. Instead, the court focused on state law, saying the "serial postponements" and "inordinate" delays amounted to setting no trial date at all.

"The circuit courts may not avoid [speedy trial] requirements by assigning trial dates that have no practical meaning," the earlier opinion stated. It's "the equivalent of the failure to assign any trial date."

The higher court rejected that reasoning and sent the case back for the lower court to assess the constitutional issues. Brown remains free pending that decision.

Yesterday, criminal justice officials seemed to be relieved by the ruling.

"I applaud the court for making it clear to everybody what the [state speedy trial] ruling means," Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck said.

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