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Right to speedy trial

An excessively speedy trial may equally violate the defendant’s right to a fair trial. One of the most important premises of the American criminal justice system is that justice delayed is justice denied. A speedy trial is necessary in a system that places fairness above anything else. Expeditious trial essentially promotes fairness. A speedy trial is one that is defined as being free from unnecessary delay. This Sixth Amendment right applies after the accused is formally charged with a crime or placed under arrest and detained to answer to criminal charges. However, speed per se is not an end in itself. An excessively speedy trial may equally violate the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Therefore, a case by case determination is the standard. The case of Barker v. Wingo 407 U.S. 514 (1972) is the landmark case in this area.

Prior to the 1960’s, the idea of a speedy trial was rarely an issue or needed, for that matter, since most cases proceeded in a timely fashion. By 1970, however, a backlog of cases began to appear in the court systems. Lawyers began to question whether lengthy delays were constitutional or not. The Barker case in 1972 brought this issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court was asked to decide exactly how long a delay in bringing someone to trial is unconstitutional. The case involved a five-year delay after an indictment had already been filed. Barker had committed murder along with an accomplice named Manning. To convict Barker, the government needed Manning to testify but he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Without Manning’s testimony, the prosecutors took five years to get this case to trial and a subsequent conviction. Barker’s attorneys appealed but a unanimous Supreme Court upheld the conviction. The justices did not interpret the Sixth Amendment as requiring any specific length of time. Instead, Justice Powell who wrote the majority opinion, established a balancing test, which applied the four criteria for determining unreasonable delay: (1) the length of the delay (the longer, the more unreasonable, (2) the reasons for the delay (the prosecutor must have good reasons), (3) the point at which defendant asserts his/her right (it can not just be another attempt at avoiding conviction or punishment), and (4) whether the delay prejudiced the defendant (an example would be if a favorable witness for the defense died). Due to the uproar that followed the Barker decision, the U.S. Congress passed the Speedy Trial Act of 1974. It only applies to federal courts and sets specific time limits such as requiring indictment within 30 days of arrest, arraignment within 10 days after indictment and trial 60 days after arraignment.

Of course, continuances and exceptions occur and are mostly held to be good cause reason for the delays. Most states passed their own version and the most common time being 90 days from arrest to trial. Needless to say, court backlog, congestion, and delay still exist, so statutory laws is rarely enforced since constitutional law (eg. the Barker criteria) provides more flexibility. In Barker, the Court stated that a delay of a year or more from the date of indictment or arrest, whichever occurs first, was defined as being “presumptively prejudicial." But the Court never explicitly ruled that any absolute time limit applies. However, it is unequivocal that the only remedy provided if the reviewing court finds that a defendant’s right to a speedy trial was violated, the indictment must be dismissed and/or the conviction overturned. If unreasonable delays occur as a result of the prosecution requests and/or actions, this may be an issue that would be ripe for appeal.

Defendant’s demonstration of prejudice is not strictly limited to a “lessened ability to defend on the merits." Rather, prejudice can be found from a variety of factors including “employment interruptions, public obloquy, anxieties concerning the continued and unresolved prosecution, the drain on finances, and the like." Moore v. Arizona, 414 U.S. 25.

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