A bird in the hand

August 14, 2006

Jason Beau Moody's trial on murder charges wasn't postponed - it was on permanent hold for more than two years. The state of limbo was government-induced, an inordinate delay and all too common occurrence in Baltimore's courts. Some court officials have tried to grapple with the systemwide problem of repeat postponements, but inertia has set in. Mr. Moody's case, though not indicative of the worst abuse of the system, is a fine example of the redundancy of the problem.

In September 2003, Mr. Moody was arrested and charged in the shooting death of his girlfriend's former husband, Kevin Shields, 26. The girlfriend pleaded guilty the following August as part of an agreement in which she would testify against the jailed Mr. Moody. But city prosecutors held off trying the case in an effort to work out a joint plea agreement with federal prosecutors who had pending an unrelated federal gun case against Mr. Moody.

Within a year, the federal case had fallen apart. But city prosecutors waited another year before they took up Mr. Moody's case while a federal appeal lagged along. They should have tried Mr. Moody as soon as the federal case was in jeopardy, under that old adage about a bird in the hand.

City prosecutors were back in court last week, trying to save their case. Mr. Moody's lawyers sought to have the murder charges thrown out, arguing that his right to a speedy trial had been denied. But they contributed to the delay. Judge Althea M. Handy found as much. She denied the motion, saying, "there never seemed to be any genuine desire" by the defense to go to trial.

Mr. Moody's lawyers may have lost this round, but they may ultimately win because protracted delays often work in the favor of the defendant. Memories get foggy, witnesses forget - or disappear. Mr. Moody's girlfriend is the prosecution's key witness, but her plea agreement is dependent on her testimony.

A city court panel reviewing the impact of postponements on the efficiency of the judicial system has identified dozens of cases with five or more postponements. A resolution of its review is overdue.

As fate would have it, Mr. Moody's trial didn't begin last week. It was postponed - a defense attorney was leaving for vacation.

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