38-Year Delay Violates Speedy Trial

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In State v. Ross, the WA Court of Appeals held that a criminal defendant’s constitutional speedy trial rights were violated by a 38-year gap between charging and the defendant’s first appearance in the trial court on the murder charges.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Here, the State charged Tommy Ross in Clallam County with aggravated first degree murder in 1978. But the State did not pursue prosecution of that charge for over 38 years. Instead, the State allowed Ross to be extradited to Canada for trial on another murder charge without ensuring that he would be returned for trial in Clallam County.

And then while Ross was incarcerated in Canada the State made no meaningful effort for decades to obtain his return to the United States for trial. The trial court ruled that the State violated Ross’s constitutional right to a speedy trial by not prosecuting the murder charge against him for over 38 years, and the court dismissed that charge. The State appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the analysis for the speedy trial right under article I, section 22 of the WA Constitution is substantially the same as the analysis under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Court of Appeals used the balancing analysis stated in Barker v. Wingo to determine whether the defendant’s constitutional right to speedy trial was violated. Among the nonexclusive factors we consider are the length of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant’s assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant.

Length of Delay.

Here, the Court ruled that the The 38-year delay here was extraordinary and significant to the speedy trial analysis. Consequently, the length of delay factor weighs heavily against the State.

Reason for Delay.

The court explained that the “reason for delay” factor focuses on whether the government or the criminal defendant is more to blame for the delay. A court looks to each party’s responsibility for the delay, and different weights are assigned to delay, primarily related to blameworthiness and the impact of the delay on defendant’s right to a fair trial.

“The State’s deliberate delays will be weighed heavily against it, but even negligence that causes delay will be weighed against the State,” said the Court. Consequently, the Court reasoned that the Prosecutor’s decision to release Ross to Canada without obtaining an enforceable agreement to return him to Clallam County was negligent and weighs against the State.

State Failing to Request Extradition.

The Court reiterated the general rule that when a defendant is incarcerated outside of the country, the State has a constitutional obligation for speedy trial purposes to make a good faith, diligent effort to secure his or her return to the United States for trial. Here, the State’s failure after 1980 to seek extradition or even inquire about obtaining Ross’s transfer to Clallam County weighs against the State.

Assertion of Speedy Trial Right.

The court explained that during the time he was incarcerated in Canada, Mr. Ross made no effort to facilitate a trial on the murder charge. He never demanded that the State bring him to trial or that the State figure out a way to remove him to the United States. He did not waive extradition or request that Canada transfer him to Clallam County for trial. And when given opportunities to return to the United States and face the murder charge, Ross declined and decided to remain in Canada. This conduct is inconsistent with an assertion of the right to a speedy trial.

“Based on Ross’s failure to assert his speedy trial right while incarcerated in Canada, we conclude that the assertion of the right factor weighs against Ross even though his failure is mitigated to some extent,” said the Court.

Prejudice from Delay.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that prejudice to the defendant as a result of delay may consist of (1) oppressive pretrial incarceration, (2) the defendant’s anxiety and concern, and (3) the possibility that dimming memories and loss of exculpatory evidence will impair the defense.

In general, a defendant must show actual prejudice to establish a speedy trial right violation. However, prejudice will be presumed when the delay results from the State’s negligence and there has been “extraordinary delay.”

“Courts generally have presumed prejudice in cases where the delay has lasted at least five years,” said the Court, citing  State v. Ollivier. The Court also cited Doggett v. U.S., a case where the U.S. Supreme Court presumed prejudice against the defendant when the State’s inexcusable oversights caused a delay of six years.

“Applying the four-part balancing analysis set out in Barker, we also conclude that the extraordinary delay in prosecuting Ross violated his speedy trial right. Accordingly, we are constrained to affirm the trial court’s dismissal of the murder charges against Ross.”

In addition, the Court of Appeals found the 38-year length of the delay significant, as was the very strong presumption of prejudice resulting from that lengthy delay. “Considering all the Barker factors, we are constrained to conclude that the balancing test weighs against the State,” said the Court. “Accordingly, we hold that the State violated Ross’s speedy trial right under the United States and Washington Constitutions. Dismissal of the charges against the accused is the only possible remedy for a violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and there’s question whether the defendant’s right to a speedy trial were violated. Washington Court rule CrRLJ 3.3(b)(2) states that a defendant must be brought to trial within 60 days of arraignment if he is detained in jail and within 90 days if he is not. The purpose o f this rule is to provide a prompt trial for the defendant once they are prosecuted. Under the rule, a charge not brought to trial within the time limit will usually be dismissed with prejudice unless the defendant requests continuances.