Justice delayed, denied

April 04, 2006

Tyrone Beane has had his day in court - again and again and again and again. Prosecutors finally got some traction last week in trying the 20-year-old in connection with a 2003 murder. After a dozen postponements, the state's case lurched forward after a judge held a hearing on the latest procedural hangup. The Beane case is a glaring example of a habitual problem in Baltimore's teeming city courts - repeat postponements. It's a problem that can trump the delivery of justice (and has in the past) and demands the attention of state court administrators.

A review of the issue, initiated by Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway, is under way. But the inquiry is hampered by a system it seeks to improve. An outmoded, lumbering computer system has made it difficult for Mr. Conaway and a panel of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to assess the extent and scope of the problem.

An initial sampling of city criminal cases in 2005, nonetheless, found 333 defendants whose cases had been postponed five or more times. Of those, 52 defendants had received 10 or more postponements. The findings are preliminary, but they underscore the depth of the problem.

Cases are supposed to be tried within 180 days, but the Maryland speedy trial rule established to protect a defendant's rights doesn't always hold. A defendant can waive his right to a speedy trial and a judge can postpone a case for good cause. Official reasons for postponements include unavailability of defense attorneys and prosecutors, no free courtrooms, plea discussions and lack of legal counsel. But the actual reasons run the gamut: illness, vacations, missing witnesses, unavailable police, new evidence.

But when is a postponement considered one too many? After three delays? Six? Twelve? Eighteen? In a courthouse that processes 1,000 criminal cases a month, there should be a limit on postponements, or they become a routine part of business, a convenient delaying tactic and a gaming strategy that can undermine convictions.

In Mr. Conaway's view, the longer it takes to try a case, the more likely the delay favors a defendant. Memories fade, witnesses go missing and others are intimidated into silence. Time erodes the integrity of a case, and when that happens, justice is not served - at all. A judicial proposal to reorganize the assignment of criminal cases has been stalled - for no understandable reason.

Every player in the criminal justice system has a piece of this problem - and no one should be absolved from devising a solution. Mr. Conaway's panel should push ahead with its investigation. Maybe the results - the sheer numbers of postponed cases - will dislodge the inertia prevalent now.

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