Speedy Trial

The News and Observer ran a story recently — available here — about the length of time it takes to resolve murder cases in North Carolina. The average time to disposition was 528 days last year. That figure includes cases resolved by plea or dismissal, suggesting that the average time to trial is probably longer. The story included a thoughtful Q&A with Jim Cooney and Colon Willoughby, who identified factors such as the large number of cases that are declared potentially capital at a Rule 24 hearing, the volume of discovery that’s common in murder cases, and the difficulty of coordinating schedules to set trial dates, especially in multi-defendant trials.

One factor that wasn’t mentioned in the article is North Carolina’s lack of a speedy trial statute. Of course, North Carolina defendants have constitutional speedy trial rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. But those rights generally don’t “kick in” until a year has passed, at which point, courts apply a four-factor test to determine whether a defendant’s constitutional speedy trial rights have been compromised. See, e.g., State v. Washington, __ N.C. App. __ (2008) (listing factors and vacating a conviction after a delay of four years and nine months).

North Carolina’s lack of a statutory speedy trial scheme stands in contrast to, for example, the federal system, where 18 U.S.C. s. 3161(c)(1) requires that trial begin within 70 days of indictment, subject to certain exceptions and exclusions. The leading criminal law treatise indicates that “all but a few” states have speedy trial statutes. 4 Wayne R. LaFave et al., Criminal Procedure, s. 18.3(c) (2d ed. 1999). My anecdotal sense is that most of those statutes set time limits far shorter than one year, i.e., that most of the statutes are more protective of a defendant’s speedy trial right than is the Constitution.

Interestingly, North Carolina used to have a speedy trial statute. Former G.S. 15A-701 et seq., the Speedy Trial Act, “required that the defendant be tried within 120 days of the date the defendant was arrested, served with criminal process, waived indictment or was indicted, whichever occurred last, unless that time was extended by certain specified events.” State v. Willis, 332 N.C. 151, 162 (1992). However, the Speedy Trial Act was repealed in 1989. I don’t know why that was done, and since the General Assembly doesn’t record floor debates and usually provides very limited records of committee hearings, I doubt that there’s an official record explaining the reason for the repeal. If I’m wrong about that, please let me know — and if anyone can remember the scuttlebutt about the repeal from 1989, please chime in about why it happened.

Obviously, a speedy trial statute wouldn’t be a panacea for delays, some of which are inevitable, and perhaps desirable, in complex cases. Further, if Mr. Willoughby is correct that most delays come from the defense side, giving the defendant a speedy trial right wouldn’t address the root of the concern. (But some speedy trial statutes bind both sides.) In any case, it’s at least worth considering whether the absence of such a statute contributes to delays. Thoughts? Opinions? Comments?

Update: The United States Supreme Court just decided a speedy trial case, Vermont v. Brillon, available here.  The gist of the case is that delays sought by court-appointed counsel are normally attributable to the defendant — because that is who counsel represents — not to the state.

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