I was on the trial setting calendar the other day and the judge demanded that a certain number of cases, which she read out in a list, be brought on for a hearing. She didn’t want to just sign off on them without scolding the attorneys for the delays. She read off the list, stating how many times each case had been continued, and then sarcastically mentioned that the “winner” was the case that had already been granted a whopping 18 continuances.
Continuances are usually for 30 to 45 days, so this case had been pushed along for close to two years by now. One lawyer quipped that the judge by calling that case the “winner” wanted other lawyers to aspire to that many continuances in their cases. The judge of course clarified that she wants the lawyers on these cases to either “fish or cut bait”. This means make a final decision on whether to accept whatever best offer the prosecutor has made, or set the case for trial.
Many people know that in the US system, an accused criminal has the right to have the case taken to trial within 60 days if in custody on that charge, or within 90 days if not in custody on that charge. But the right is largely theoretical, in the sense that very few cases have all the discovery completed and reviewed within that tight a timeframe. On serious charges, there may be multiple experts who take months to review the evidence and submit their reports. There can be codefendants each with their own lawyer and their conflicting trial schedules.
Priority must be given to those in custody. For those out on bail, most parties are not in a hurry. Putting off a trial for a year or so may even help their defense. Witnesses may forget some details, or move out of town. Even if they are going to end up in jail, they are not necessarily in a rush to have that happen. The populations we interpreters work with are also facing deportation, and the life changes that will entail. So rushing to trial is not always the best plan if you can be out and working while you wait.
For those sitting in the county jail awaiting trial, it is a different story. I have seen many cases where the defendant himself is opposed to the continuance, but the judge grants it anyway. Either one of the lawyers is not going to be available, or a key witness is not around. Guilty or innocent, it must be hard to be sitting in jail and having hearing after hearing where you are told that someone is on vacation, or in another trial, or some evidence that has been around for five months just wasn’t forwarded yet.
For attorneys, though, taking a case to trial without being fully prepared is not an option. And having someone plead guilty just to get out of jail carries its own risks. The newly convicted person will likely be put on probation, which means facing additional jail time, for up to five years in some cases. So the case isn’t really “over”.
The right to a speedy trial when it conflicts with the need to be fully prepared means the accused is truly being caught between a rock and a hard place. Or as one language would have it, with your back to the wall and a sword pointed at your chest. Not an easy place to hang out and wait, for months on end.
For crime victims as well, waiting and expecting to have to testify only to have it put off again and again must be agonizing. The victims have already been traumatized, and each time they are told a new trial date, they must prepare mentally for reliving the crime. It would be nice if the process could be streamlined, but it doesn’t seem realistic in the current system. So “speedy trial” will remain less than speedy for the foreseeable future. And cases are destined to be continued.