In State v. Denton, the WA Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s criminal convictions and dismissed his case because the trial court wrongully granted continuances solely based on routine crime lab delays processing DNA results.
The victim Mrs. Denton divorced the defendant, Bradley Denton, in 2012. The couple later reconciled but Mr. Denton resumed using drugs. Mrs. Denton ended the relationship for good after about a year.
When Mr. Denton persisted in contacting her, Mrs. Denton obtained an order for protection against him. That fall, Mrs. Denton, who had moved to Tumwater, returned to Yakima for a family gathering. Mr. Denton was aware she was in town. On the morning after the family gathering, Mr. Denton arrived uninvited at the home where Mrs. Denton and other family members were staying.
A sexual assault allegedly occurred. Mrs. Denton reported the assault to the Tumwater Police Department. An officer took a recorded statement, arranged for her to undergo a sexual assault examination. Police picked up the clothing had been wearing when assaulted. They referred the matter to the Yakima Police Department.
About a week later, Mr. Denton, who had been arrested for unrelated reasons and was incarcerated in the Yakima County Jail, placed a phone call to Felicia. Mrs. Denton did not accept the first call. However, after speaking with police, she accepted three calls from Mr. Denton.
On October 26, Mr. Denton was charged with assault in violation of a protection order, second degree rape, and two counts of misdemeanor violation of a protection order. All were charged as domestic violence offenses.
Mr. Denton was held in jail for 15 months during the pendency of his case. Over his objections, the trial court granted two continuances. The continuances extended Denton’s trial date four and a half months beyond period provided by CrR 3.3. The judge granted the continuances because the Prosecutor said that a nine-month turnaround by the crime lab was to be expected.
The jury found Mr. Denton guilty of all charges. He appealed his conviction on arguments that the 15-month delay between his arraignment and trial violated his speedy-trial rights under CrR 3.3.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by granting continuances based on evidence of routine administrative delay by the WA State Patrol Crime Lab.
The Court reasoned that CrR 3.3(b)(1) requires a defendant who is detained in jail to be brought to trial within 60 days of arraignment. Mr. Denton was detained in jail, so the 60-day limit applies, reasoned the Court.
“The purpose underlying CrR 3.3 is to protect a defendant’s constitutional right to
a speedy trial,“ said the Court. “Past experience has shown that unless a strict rule is
applied, the right to a speedy trial as well as the integrity of the judicial process, cannot
be effectively preserved.”
Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the fact that DNA evidence may prove exculpatory is not a basis for continuing the time for trial over a defendant’s objection. It emphasized that the State’s requests for continuances must be supported by a better record.
Finally, the Court reasoned that dismissal is required:
“Presented with a record in which the sole basis for the two continuances was routine crime lab delay, we are left with no choice but to reverse Mr. Denton’s convictions and direct the superior court to dismiss the charges with prejudice. We deplore this outcome given the violent nature of Mr. Denton’s crimes, but it is the strict remedy that drafters of the rule perceived as needed to ensure that criminal cases will be promptly prepared for trial and heard.” ~WA Court of Appeals.
With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Denton’s conviction and dismissed the case with prejudice. The case emphasized that if a convicted defendant can establish a violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial, the court must set aside the conviction, vacate the sentence, and dismiss the charging document.
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