Georgia Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein
Georgia Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein (File photo)

Overruling lower court case law that made it harder for defendants to win a speedy trial argument, the Georgia Supreme Court has handed at least a temporary victory to a man who said Fulton County prosecutors didn’t try him fast enough on his driving under the influence charges.

As recounted in the May 19 Supreme Court opinion, defendant John Williamson was charged in July 2011 with DUI and failure to maintain his lane. On Nov. 2, 2011, Williamson filed a speedy trial demand under a Georgia statute that says a defendant may demand that he be tried within two court terms, which generally last two months. On Jan. 25, 2012, when he still hadn’t been tried, he filed a motion for acquittal based on the speedy trial statute.

The issue in the appellate case is the interpretation of a rule that says for a court term to count for purposes of the speedy trial statute, there must be juries “impaneled and qualified to try the defendant” during that term.

Fulton County has six annual terms of court beginning on the first Monday of January, March, May, July, September and November. Williamson’s Nov. 2 speedy trial demand was made during the end of the September 2011 term, because the November term did not begin until Monday, Nov. 7. The question in the case is whether there were juries impaneled and qualified to serve during the last days of the September 2011 term, such that that term would count as the first of the two terms the state had to try Williamson, with the November term being the second.

The Supreme Court ruling and an earlier Court of Appeals opinion said the evidence presented at the hearing on Williamson’s motion for acquittal showed that on Nov. 2, the day Williamson filed his demand, 375 jurors were instructed to report to court, and 106 showed up. Of those, 62 were sent to courtrooms, leaving 44 jurors available. The Fulton State Court jury clerk testified that she did not know when those jurors were released but allowed that at least 18 jurors were available until 1 p.m.

For Nov. 3, 175 jurors were instructed to report but only 37 reported. The clerk testified that judges requested 18 jurors in one courtroom and 14 in another, leaving five jurors in the waiting room.

The clerk called no jurors on Nov. 4, a Friday, as was the norm.

Fulton State Court Judge Brenda Cole denied Williamson’s motion, concluding it was premature because there was no impaneled jury available to try Williamson during the September term after he filed his motion. She said the filing of the speedy trial demand at 11:16 a.m. on Nov. 2 did not give the court and prosecutor enough time to review the demand and request jurors for a trial that day before jurors were dismissed. She pointed to there being only five jurors available the following day, not enough for a trial.

A panel of the state Court of Appeals affirmed last year, deferring to Cole’s findings. The Georgia Supreme Court granted the defense request for review of the case. In its ruling last week, the Supreme Court said the lower courts had erred in their analysis of the statute. The justices added, however, that the Court of Appeals still needed to consider a prosecution argument that Williamson waived his right to a speedy trial despite having requested one.

In her opinion for the unanimous court, Justice Carol Hunstein said her court interpreted “impaneled” to mean jurors who have been summoned, have appeared for service and have not been discharged. She cited several opinions by her court and the Court of Appeals in support of that conclusion, adding that her court was overruling some Court of Appeals decisions to the extent they had taken a different approach.

“The statute does not require that courts examine how many jurors were serving on other trials or had been committed for other trials,” wrote Hunstein. “Nor does the statute require an analysis of whether the trial court had time to try the defendant, an examination of the court’s calendar, or even whether there were enough criminal trial weeks scheduled during the term. … If we were to require the defendant to wait for the time and convenience of the court—that is, whether there are enough jurors remaining after all of the other jurors have been assigned to courtrooms or trials for each day—the statute could well be rendered meaningless.”

Hunstein wrote that the rule as interpreted by her court creates no hardship for prosecutors, courts or witnesses because the statute does not require that a defendant actually be tried during the term in which he files his speedy trial demand. The state has the entire following term to try the defendant, she wrote.

In Williamson’s case, wrote Hunstein, the record showed there were 37 jurors impaneled and qualified for a criminal trial on Nov. 3, 2011—the day after he issued his demand—so the September term counted as the first of the two terms during which the state had to try the defendant. With enough jurors available on Nov. 3, she noted, the court did not need to consider whether there were enough jurors on Nov. 2.

Hunstein said it was undisputed that juries were impaneled and qualified during the November term. Therefore, Hunstein concluded, the Court of Appeals panel was wrong to hold that the state had through the end of the January term to try Williamson.

The Supreme Court ruling does not mean that Williamson will win acquittal based on his speedy trial demand, however. Hunstein said the Court of Appeals still must consider whether Williamson had waived his right to a speedy trial. Hunstein noted that the trial court found that when Williamson’s case was called for trial in December, defense counsel requested that another case on the calendar, in which his firm also was appearing as counsel, be taken up first, and that Williamson never objected to his case being put on the backup calendar.

Atlanta lawyer Robert Chestney, who represents Williamson, couldn’t be reached on Wednesday. His law partner, James “Skip” Sullivan, said he was somewhat familiar with Williamson’s case. “We’re thrilled with the Georgia Supreme Court’s analysis of the statute,” said Sullivan.

“The Supreme Court kind of narrowed it back down to what the statute actually says,” Sullivan continued. “It has to be strictly construed and that’s exactly what the Supreme Court did.”

Sullivan declined to discuss the waiver issue that the Supreme Court has asked the Court of Appeals to address.

Assistant Solicitor General R. Leon Benham argued the case for the state at the Supreme Court. His boss, Fulton SG Carmen Smith, said in an email that her office does not comment on pending prosecutions.

The case is Williamson v. State, No. S13G1133.