My bluff was called the other day. I was invited to serve on a committee of some sort composed of lawyers and judges. The topic was whether to use video conferencing in the state courts. I even got a nice letter from Chief Justice Chase Rogers thanking me for my service.
Of course, I returned the favor of selection with poor attendance at meetings. Trials and other court commitments keep crowding my schedule. So I arrive, finally, at the point of this column: Can’t we do something about the length of time it takes cases to get to trial in this state? I am referring in this column to criminal trials.
A not uncommon call to my office consists of a person represented by another lawyer who wants a second opinion, reassurance that his lawyer is on the job, or simply to replace his or her current lawyer. Why? Nothing is going on in their case. The client’s life and liberty hangs in the balance. They want relief, and they want it now.
But we know that a criminal accusation in Connecticut is not treated like an emergency. No, the slow acid-drip of prosecution more resembles the heartburn that comes of a too rich meal.
Speedy trials in Connecticut are a joke. By law, a person in jail, cloaked with the presumption of innocence, but unable to make bond, sits for eight months before he is eligible to request a speedy trial. Then the state must limp to the courthouse to begin jury selection within the next 30 days. Hence, a person who can’t make bond might wait nine months to see the whites of a juror’s eyes. That is a long, long time.
If you are lucky enough to make bond, then you wait a year before you can request a trial. The only folks who get a trial more quickly are those already serving a sentence. They can demand trial in 120 days.
I am fully cognizant that delay is sometimes a person’s best defense. I count it a good day in court when a lengthy delay results in lost evidence and a nolle. Such events are rare. Most often delay wreaks havoc with witnesses: they disappear, lose interest or simply forget things. I have used delay to the advantage of my clients. The simple fact is that defense counsel has no duty to see that justice is done.
But delay most often simply works a hardship on clients.
I am in trial now in a difficult case involving the death of children. The underlying incident took place on July 4, 2007. Between trauma and trial, my client has needed reassurance that I was not goofing off. It was hard for the client to understand the pace. Other clients now raise questions. Several days ago, a man came to see me complaining that his lawyer wasn’t doing anything. The case was four months old. Why weren’t there answers to some pretty basic questions? No amount of explanation seemed to satisfy this client. Four months is the blink of a judicial eye in this state.
And another client presses me for answers on his case. His name has been ruined. Serious accusations have been lodged. We’ve been to court three times now and we still do not even have the underlying police reports. Here’s why. The first court appearance was an arraignment. At the second, the state announced it was screening the case to transfer to a more serious court. On the last appearance, the case was transferred. Six weeks and all we’ve done is play footsy with the state. For all I know, this client complains to another lawyer about me. How do you report to a client that nothing has happened in his case during the past six months?
Delay makes molasses of justice. It breeds tension between lawyer and client. And it belies the significance of a prosecution. Speedy trials should mean something other than a long line at the butcher’s.
Norm Pattis is a criminal defense lawyer and civil rights attorney in Bethany.