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Supreme Court reviews speedy trial issue

  Criminal Law  -   POSTED: 2009/01/14 16:49

The Supreme Court appeared unlikely Tuesday to favor a broad rule that rewards criminal defendants with dismissal of charges against them because of trial delays by their taxpayer-funded lawyers.


The court heard arguments in a case from Vermont in which the state Supreme Court threw out the assault conviction of career criminal Michael Brillon because his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial had been violated. Brillon was jailed for three years and went through six defense attorneys before his trial for hitting his girlfriend in the face.

The justices are trying to determine when delays caused by public defenders can amount to a constitutional violation and when governments can be held responsible since they're the ones who assign and pay the lawyers for indigent defendants.

As the lawyers for Brillon and Vermont recounted the actions of Brillon, his lawyers, the state's public defender office and the courts, it became clear that, as Justice David Souter said, "There's plenty of blame to go around."

For some other violations, criminal defendants are entitled to new trials. But when a defendant is deprived of a speedy trial, the Supreme Court has ruled that dismissal of the charges is the only remedy.

"Aren't you giving defense attorneys a perverse incentive" to delay, asked Justice Samuel Alito.

Forty states and 15 organizations — state governments, county governments, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a victim's rights' group — are backing the Vermont prosecutor's appeal of the ruling, worried that if it stands criminal suspects will try to game the system and get the result Brillon did.


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