How many defense attorneys does it take to screw up a case? Or better yet, how badly malfunctioning does a public defender system have to be to get a court to blame it for delays in the criminal justice system?
Back in March, the Vermont Supreme Court issued a very curious opinion reversing a conviction for failure to prosecute in a timely fashion. The Court held that the three-years spent by the defendant awaiting trial violated his right to a speedy trial. Which would be fine if that were all to the story.
The reason for the delay? The defendant’s various public defenders.
In arriving at this decision, we acknowledge that much of the delay in prosecuting defendant resulted from the inaction of several of the assigned counsel who represented defendant during the three years he awaited trial. As we discuss in detail below, however, the inaction of assigned counsel does not relieve the state of its duty, through implementation of the criminal justice system, to provide defendant with a constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial. Indeed, the defender general’s office is part of the criminal justice system and an arm of the state. When, as in this case, a defendant presses for, but is denied, a speedy trial because of the inaction of assigned counsel or a breakdown in the public defender system, the failure of the system to provide the defendant a constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial is attributable to the prosecution, and not defendant.
The Court finds that
irrespective of the reason for the delay, egregious delay in bringing an incarcerated defendant to trial must be factored against the state in a speedy-trial analysis because, as the Supreme Court emphasized in Barker, it is ultimately the government’s responsibility to bring a defendant to trial in a timely matter. See 407 U.S. at 529 (holding that “the primary burden [is] on the courts and the prosecutors to assure that cases are brought to trial”)
You can read the facts for yourself, but what is important to recognize here is that Vermont is not the only state facing such problems with its public defender system. Normally, a lawsuit would be the appropriate way to remedy the lack of funding, but this certainly may make some ears perk up.
I will reserve judgment on whether the VT Supreme Court was right or wrong, but I get the sense that what the VT Supreme Court tried to remedy was what happens to every client in almost every system (albeit not to this extent), and that everyone accepts as the price of doing business.
Well, everyone except the legislature and the voting public, who are generally outraged that things take so long to go to trial. Maybe they shouldn’t take so long? Or maybe we shouldn’t be creating so many new laws and calling for “hard on crime” policies that clog our systems and lead to overworked public defenders.