So what constitutes a “speedy” trial? The short answer: it depends.
As recently as July 14, 2011, the Court of Appeals of Georgia weighed in on this issue in State v. Thaxton, reversing the trial court’s grant of the defendant's motion for discharge and acquittal for violation of his constitutional right to a speedy trial. See State v Thaxton (Ga.App, 2011).
In Thaxton, the defendant was arrested on or about October 39, 2008, on seven counts of dog fighting, cruelty to animals, and possession of more than an ounce of marijuana. He was appointed counsel within days of his arrest (on November 4, 2008). A month later - on December 3, 2008, Thaxton was released from jail on bond, the conditions of his release including no contact with animals and GPS monitoring, except during his daytime employment.
On January 11, 2010, almost fifteen months after his arrest, Thaxton was indicted on one felony count of possession and three counts of misdemeanor cruelty to animals. A month or so later, Thaxton filed his Motion for Discharge and Acquittal on the basis of a pre-indictment delay.
In its analysis, the Court of Appeals discussed two types of pre-trial delay, the first of which precedes a criminal defendant’s arrest or indictment and implicates due process guarantees under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Jones v State, 284 GA. 320 (1), 667 SE2d 49 (2008). The second type of pre-trial delay occurs after an arrest or indictment, implicating the Sixth Amendment. Id. at 322 (2); Haisman v. State, 242 Ga. 896, 898 (2), 252 SE2 397 (1979). Since Thaxton’s motion complained of the 15-month delay that post-dated his arrest, Sixth Amendment standards needed to be applied in resolving his speedy trial claim. Thaxton, supra.
Considerations for determining speedy trial claims under the Sixth Amendment have been outlined by the United States Supreme Court. See Barker v Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 92 SC 2182, 33 LE2d 101 (1972); Doggett v. United States, 505 U.S. 647, 112 SC 2868, 120 LE2 520 (1992). In Doggett, Justice Souter delivered the opinion, noting that a defendant's initial burden in triggering a speedy trial analysis (the first prong of the four-factor test outlined in Barker v Wingo) is to demonstrate that the interval between the indictment and trial crosses the line between ordinary delay and delay which is "presumptively prejudicial." A determination that the interval period is not presumptively prejudicial is the death knell of a speedy trial claim.
If presumptive prejudice is found, then the Court must look at whether the defendant or the government is primarily responsible for the delay, the timeliness of the defendant’s assertion of his right to a speedy trial, and whether the defendant was prejudiced by the delay. Doggett, supra. It is a careful balancing test. “No one factor is sufficient or necessary to sustain a finding that that the right to a speedy trial has been denied.” Id. None of the factors, according to the Thaxton Court, have “talismanic qualities,” but the Court is nonetheless required to make findings of fact and conclusions of law consistent with the balancing test. Because the Thaxton Court did not did not do so, the case was reversed and remanded for a decision consistent with the Court of Appeals' decision.
Interestingly enough, a couple of months before Thaxton was decided, The Augusta Chronicle (on February 9, 2011) published an article entitled, “Judges warn of impact of funding cuts,” noting a “failure of the system to provide access to the court,” contributing to judicial backlogs, staff cuts, and speedy trial violations. The article, which can be found at http://chronicle.augusta.com/latest-news/2011-02-09/judges-warn-impact-funding-cuts, specifically notes that in the Peach State, “backlogs have forced months-long waits for relatively simple matters such as child support hearings.”
As Chief Judge Hunstein noted in her 2011 State of the Judiciary Address, Georgia cannot afford the $1 billion plus dollars it costs each year to maintain its prison system. One in every thirteen Georgians is behind bars or on probation or parole – the highest per capital figure in the nation, a figure that prompted Judge Hunstein to question whether Georgia’s mandatory minimum sentences are really making Georgians safer and if so, at what cost?
Part of the solution, according to Chief Judge Hunstein, is to give Georgia’s judges greater discretion in the courtroom. “Our judges know how to balance punishment with the public safety. And they know that sending a young man to prison for a non-violent crime may not be the best sentence if he will emerge years later with no education, a prison record and little chance of getting a job. As a Texas legislator said, we need these offenders to be taxpayers, not tax burdens.” http://www.gasupreme.us/press_releases/soj_2011.php.
According to Chief Judge Hunstein, we can save taxpayer dollars and still protect the public by creating and embracing innovative changes to the criminal justice system – as Georgia has been doing with drug courts. According to Chief Justice Hunstein (who was citing to a recent report by the Georgia Department of Audits), drug courts have resulted in lower sentencing costs (up to 80 percent less than the average daily cost of other traditional sentencing options) and lower recidivism rates. And according to the Georgia Department of Audits, 7% percent of drug court participants reoffended, as compared to 29% of those who simply served time in prison for drug-related offenses. http://www.gasupreme.us/press_releases/soj_2011.php.
Another type of specialty court, domestic violence courts, can also help conserve taxpayer dollars – in addition to safeguarding the public, savings lives, and reuniting Georgia families. According to Chief Judge Hunstein, Georgia has the 15th highest rate of domestic violence homicides in the country. However, programs like that implemented by Clayton County’s Chief Magistrate Judge, Daphne Walker, who began a special calendar for domestic violence cases, have reportedly resulted in a significant reduction in domestic violence homicides. http://www.gasupreme.us/press_releases/soj_2011.php.
The upshot – budget cuts, case backlogs, and a reduction in number of judges who are able to decide criminal cases will necessarily result in constitutional rights being violated and the public welfare being placed in jeopardy. So what can members of the legal community do? Support innovative solutions, like drug and domestic violence courts. Brainstorm with colleagues about creative solutions yet untapped. And opt to be a part of the solution by lending a constructive voice to the dialogue.