Written by attorney William Lee Pfeifer Jr

The Right to a Speedy Trial in Alabama - Part 4

This is Part 4 of a four-part article on Alabama's speedy trial right.

The Right to a Speedy Trial in Alabama - Part 4 by William L. Pfeifer, Jr.

The Prejudice to the Defendant The fourth and final factor to be weighed in a speedy trial analysis is any prejudice to a defendant that may have resulted from the delay. As stated previously, there are three primary interests to be protected by a defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial: preventing excessive pretrial incarceration, limiting any impairment's on a defendant's liberty while out on bail, and reducing the chances that a defendant's ability to defend himself will be impaired. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. at 532. The Court considered the last of these to have the most serious potential for prejudice "because the inability of a defendant adequately to prepare his case skews the fairness of the entire system."

According to the United States Supreme Court in Moore v. Arizona, 414 U.S. 25 (1973), showing of prejudice to the defendant is not actually essential to finding there has been a deprivation of a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in Ringstaff v. Howard, 885 F. 2d 1542, cert denied, 496 U.S. 927 (1989), held that it is not necessary for a defendant to show actual prejudice if the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, and the defendant's assertion of the right to a speedy trial weigh heavily against the State. However, there has been a reluctance by the Alabama courts to find a speedy trial deprivation where no prejudice exists. See Ex parte Archer, 643 So. 2d 601 (Ala. 1992); Ex parte Slaughter, 377 So. 2d 632 (Ala. 1979); and Austin v. State, 562 So. 2d 530 (Ala. Crim. App. 1989).

In Ex parte Walker, 928 So. 2d 259 (Ala. 2005), the Alabama Supreme Court held that a weighting of the first three factors in the defendant’s favor did not automatically relieve her of the burden of demonstrating actual prejudice caused by the delay. The Court distinguished prior Alabama cases relied upon in Walker’s argument in which the defendants were not required to prove actual prejudice under the fourth factor, and held that those cases did not establish a rule that any weighting of the first three factors against the State requires a finding of presumed prejudice when evaluating the fourth factor. However, the Court also acknowledged that “to prevail on a speedy-trial claim, not every accused must prove actual prejudice." The Court stated that “the longer the delay resulting from the state’s negligence, the greater the likelihood that the accused’s speedy-trial right has been violated, even without the accused affirmatively demonstrating actual prejudice." In Walker’s case, the Court concluded:

Pretrial delay certainly may be so lengthy as to relieve the accused of demonstrating actual prejudice, seeDoggett, 505 U.S. at 656-58, 112 S. Ct. 2686, but our balancing of the Barker factors leads us to conclude that the 50-month delay in Walker’s case has not crossed that threshold. With no actual or presumed prejudice in Walker’s case, the delay did not violate her right to a speedy trial. See Doggett, 505 U.S. at 656, 112 S. Ct. 2686 (“Our speedy trial standards recognize that pretrial delay is often both inevitable and wholly justifiable."); Barker, 407 U.S. at 521, 92 S. Ct. 2182 (recognizing that delay in bringing an accused to trial does not always prejudice the accused); Serna-Villarreal, 352 F.3d at 230 (“Obviously, in this balancing [of the Barker factors], the less prejudice [an accused] experiences, the less likely it is that a denial of a speedy trial right will be found."). The judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is affirmed. 928 So. 2d at 277.

In State v. Wooten, 2006 WL 1452914 (Ala. Crim. App. 2006), the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that the defendant had failed to present any evidence indicating that the delay would “undermine the fairness of his trial" and that “Wooten failed to prove actual prejudice as a result of the delay." The court went on to say that “the precise weight and effect to be accorded the delay is dependent upon any prejudice suffered by Wooten."

In Barker v. Wingo, the Supreme Court provided examples of ways in which a defendant may be prejudiced by the delay in prosecution. The Court indicated that witnesses may die or disappear during a delay, and witnesses may be unable to accurately recall events. Further, the Court stated:

The time spent in jail awaiting trial has a detrimental impact on the individual. It often means loss of a job; it disrupts family life; and it enforces idleness. Most jails offer little or no recreational or rehabilitative programs. The time spent in jail is simply dead time. Moreover, if a defendant is locked up, he is hindered in his ability to gather evidence, contact witnesses, or otherwise prepare his defense. Imposing those consequences on anyone who has not yet been convicted is serious. It is especially unfortunate to impose them on those persons who are ultimately found to be innocent. Finally, even if an accused is not incarcerated prior to trial, he is still disadvantaged by restraints on his liberty and by living under a cloud of anxiety, suspicion, and often hostility. 407 U.S. 514, 532-33.

In addition to the forms of prejudice described in Barker v. Wingo, the Alabama appellate courts have included the adverse effects on parole consideration, eligibility for work release and other prison programs, and the particular place of confinement. Ex parte Archer, 643 So. 2d 601 (Ala. 1992); Ex parte Slaughter, 377 So. 2d 632 (Ala. 1979); and Austin v. State, 562 So. 2d 530 (Ala. Crim. App. 1989). However, “vague allegations" that the defendant has been deprived of various programs or benefits are “too vague to substantiate any claim of prejudice." Kimberly v. State, 501 So. 2d 534, 537 (Ala. Crim. App. 1986).

In Anderson v. State, 2007 WL 2405673 (Ala. 2007), the Alabama Supreme Court discussed the fourth prong of the Barker v Wingo test using the three hypothetical situations addressed in the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Doggett v. United States, 505 U.S. 647 (1992). The defendant’s burden of proof under each hypothetical varies inversely with the degree of culpability the state has in causing the delay. First, where “the state acts with reasonable diligence in bringing the defendant to trial, the defendant has the burden of proving prejudice caused by the delay." Second, where there are bad-faith efforts by the state to delay the trial, the burden on the defendant would be “minimal at most, and depending on how heavily the other Barker factors weigh against the state, the fourth factor’s inquiry into prejudice could be rendered irrelevant." Third, where the delay is the result in the middle ground referred to as “official negligence", the court must consider what portion of the delay is attributable to the state’s negligence and what portion is attributable to the defendant. If the negligent delay is sufficiently lengthy or if the first three factors weigh sufficiently heavily in the defendant’s favor, then the defendant may be entitled to a finding of presumed prejudice. If prejudice is presumed, the burden of proof shifts to the state to show that the defendant’s ability to defend himself is unimpaired or that some other extenuating circumstances exist.


No particular factor is conclusive in determining whether a defendant has been denied his right to a speedy trial, and the balancing of the factors can be a difficult process because the guidelines are not subject to strict definition. Often the analysis of one prong of theBarker test overlaps with the analysis of another factor, in some cases making it difficult or impossible to determine one factor separately from another. The Supreme Court summarized the situation best by stating:

We regard none of the four factors identified above as either a necessary or sufficient condition to the finding of a deprivation of the right of speedy trial. Rather, they are related factors and must be considered together with such other circumstances as may be relevant. In sum, these factors have no talismanic qualities; courts must still engage in a difficult and sensitive balancing process. But, because we are dealing with a fundamental right of the accused, this process must be carried out with full recognition that the accused's interest in a speedy trial is specifically affirmed in the Constitution. 407 U.S. 514, 533. Note: This is part four of a four-part article on Alabama's speedy trial right. Please read all four parts of the article in order to understand this complex legal issue.

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