No court available

May 10, 2006

When Baltimore prosecutors showed up for the April 24 trial of accused child murderer Keith M. Garrett, there wasn't a judge available to hear the case. The time before that, on Feb. 21, same thing: No court available. That's in a courthouse with 32 sitting judges.

What's wrong with this picture? Lots. "No court available" means there isn't a judge free to handle the case. It is the reason most often cited for postponing a case in Baltimore Circuit Court after the unavailability of defense lawyers, according to court figures.

Maintaining a steady flow of cases is imperative to the timely delivery of justice. As cases are delayed, memories fade, witnesses disappear, victims feel frustrated and convictions are harder to win.

The postponements involve more than unavailable judges. Consider the case of Mr. Garrett. In his first court appearance in April 2004, he pleaded not guilty to the murder of a 7-year-old boy who disappeared in 1992. Since then, his trial has been postponed nine times as his public defender repeatedly asked for more time to prepare his case, citing the extraordinary fact that the victim's body has not been found.

Resolving the postponement problem relies on a variety of factors. The court - the busiest trial court in Maryland, with 64,926 cases filed last year - asked for an additional judge this year, but it was denied. As a result, the court needs to better manage its resources and dockets. For example, drug felony cases dominate the docket, but fewer judges are assigned to handle them than are assigned to handle other felonies. The imbalance needs correcting.

But that alone won't end postponements. Prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys and police have to be part of the solution. That means police have to bring well-investigated cases to lawyers who are well-prepared to try them in a timely manner. Judge shopping has to stop, and some judges have to start acting like jurists.

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