As criminal trials are resuming due to the vaccinations across the state, the criminal justice system needs to review whether justice delayed is fair justice for some criminal defendants. Many trials were postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic due to concerns jurors, court personnel, and defendants would become infected through close contact. While it is understandable why jury trials were largely suspended during the pandemic, the reality is that many defendants spent more time in jail awaiting trial than they would have if they had just pled guilty.
On top of having their trials denied, defendants who spent time in jail were generally at higher risk of exposure from other defendants and other prison workers than the general public. Sadly, many defendants in jail died from the coronavirus during the pandemic.
An illustrative case
The Washington Post tells the story of Charles Ford, who was impacted by the suspension of jury trials. When the pandemic began, Ford had already been in jail for a year awaiting misdemeanor and felony charges. He filed a motion for release due to worries he might contract the virus while in jail. The motion was denied because he was still on probation for other offenses.
Ford’s first trial ended when two of the jurors contracted the disease. Ford then came down with the disease. At his second trial, he was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge but not the felony charge. He served 22 months, even though the sentence for the misdemeanor was six months.
How the trial delays impacted the defendants’ rights to a speedy trial
The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution provides “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial…” That right was violated in many criminal cases across the state and the country due to the pandemic.
The criminal courts did try to release many people accused of nonviolent crimes – but anyone charged with a violent crime and who requested a jury trial (instead of a judicial bench trial) was likely confined to jail for an unusually long length of time. Some defendants are just having their trials now. Criminal courts are prioritizing which defendants should be tried first – in part, on the basis that their time already served may be more than their likely sentence.
A federal judge in Washington, DC said, in a dissent, that the suspension of the right to a speedy trial has severe consequences. In addition to spending time in jail for an offense he/she may not have committed, the speedy trial waivers affect a defendant’s:
- Ability to get or keep a job
- Be there for the birth of a child
- Physical well-being due to the possibility of contracting the disease or physical assaults
The Washington Post reported that while Ford in his jail, his fiancée left him, he could not pay his bills, and his credit score took a nosedive.
The suspensions are particularly unjust for defendants who ultimately are acquitted, obtain a dismissal of the charges, or negotiate a plea bargain to lesser offense where the sentence would be less than the time served.
Could what happened to Ford be considered unlawful imprisonment?
Potentially, though it is unlikely. Ford was sentenced to jail time, so he was not unlawfully imprisoned. However, one could make an argument that the “failure to release” is a violation of the law. It is possible that people who were indefinitely detained while waiting for a hearing have a claim for unlawful imprisonment. Given the unprecedented situation that the pandemic caused the courts, however, such an argument is not likely to sway judges or juries.
The impact on current jury trials
In May 2021, the federal court in Washington DC conducted its first jury trial in nearly a year. As of mid-June, 582 of the defendants waiting for trials in Washington, DC had been charged with felonies. Many of the criminal charges were for violent offenses but 100 were for drug and gun possession charges.
In Washington, DC, the court is using a “virtual check-in for people to resolve outstanding misdemeanor bench warrants.”
One advocate, Patrice Sulton, the director of the DC Justice Lab, asserted that prosecutors should have been asking whether it is necessary to seek a conviction for defendants who have already been in jail for a long period of time. She wonders whether it is necessary to go through the expense and time (court personnel and juries) to obtain a conviction on the record when the sentence will likely be less than the time served.
Some of the defendants in the January 6 Capitol riot are also claiming that they will spend more time in jail awaiting trial than they would if they were convicted due to the delayed criminal trial timetable.
A District US Attorney’s Office spokeswoman claims that prosecutors are factoring in the pandemic into their criminal justice system decisions. Many defense lawyers who understood the fairness of the speedy trial issue did not push for trials during the pandemic due to COVID-19 exposure concerns and the worry that jurors would be distracted.
There are risks with pretrial release which many defendants like Ford have sought during the pandemic. The Washington Post reported that another inmate from Alexandria was released during the pandemic. He then killed himself and the lady he was charged with sexually assaulting. Judges are balancing the needs of the defendant to a speedy trial with the type of charge and the defendant’s criminal record.
At Carey Law Office, our criminal defense lawyer represents the accused in and around Bowie and Crofton, from the moment they suspect an arrest is coming through every stage of the trial, including requests for release on bail. We work aggressively to ensure defendants receive a speedy trial, that their Constitutional rights are respected, and that the prosecution follows the criminal rules. We fight to have your charges dismissed, to negotiate just plea bargains, and to obtain acquittals.
If you have been arrested or are awaiting trial, call our seasoned and respected criminal defense lawyer at 301-464-2500 or fill out our contact form to schedule an appointment. Serving Bowie, Crofton, Calvert County, and the surrounding areas.
My name is Joe Carey, and I am the founder and principal attorney of the Carey Law Office. I have lived in Maryland my entire life. I grew up in a small town in Prince George’s County and, with the help of my partner in life, Nancy, I raised my family here: three exceptional children (a son and two daughters), and two goofy, spoiled black Labrador Retrievers. Learn More