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Speedy Trial Right & COVID-19

Nov. 19, 2021

An accused has the right to a speedy trial under the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What this means is that an accused has the right to be tried for the alleged charges within a reasonable amount of time from arrest. It is a powerful ground to seek dismissal of the case. If the court determines that the delay between arrest and trial is unreasonable, it can dismiss the indictment, in which case, Virginia law allow the prosecution to appeal the decision.

This is what happened in Commonwealth v. Murphy (2021), a case involving an appeal brought by the prosecution where the appellate court reversed the circuit court’s dismissal of the indictments on constitutional speedy trial grounds. The defendant in the case was arrested on December 28, 2019, just before the start of the pandemic, and denied bail. Several judicial emergency orders by the Virginia Supreme Court restricting trials and a series of continuances ensued. Due to the effects of the pandemic at the jail where the defendant was being housed, he was granted bond more than a year after his arrest after which he sought dismissal of the charges on constitutional speedy trial grounds. The circuit court granted his motion to dismiss. The Virginia Court of Appeals reversed the decision on the ground that the accused did not carry his burden of proving a constitutional speedy trial violation.

What you must prove to win a constitutional speedy trial claim

To succeed on a constitutional speedy trial claim, you must satisfy the applicable test set forth in Wingo v. Barker (1972), which requires balancing four main factors.

  1. The length of delay

  2. The reason for delay

  3. The defendant's assertion of his right

  4. Prejudice to the defendant in:

  1. Preventing oppressive pretrial incarceration

  2. Minimizing the accused’s anxiety

  3. Limiting the possibility that the defense will be impaired

Why Commonwealth v. Murphy overturned the circuit court’s speedy trial ruling

In Murphy, the Virginia Court of Appeals reviewed the circuit court’s reasoning under Wingo and balanced the four factors against the defendant in overturning the ruling. On the first factor, a delay of 14 months from arrest to when he filed his motion to dismiss the indictment, was presumably prejudicial to the defendant. On the second factor, the court found that it did not weigh in the defendant’s favor. The court noted that Commonwealth was responsible for a fraction of the period of delay, attributing the rest of the delay to the pandemic as a justifiable basis, and continuances brought about by a change in the defendant’s plea. On the third factor, the court found that the record did not reflect that the defendant ever asserted his constitutional right to a speedy trial until he filed his motion to dismiss the charges on that ground. Finally, on the fourth factor, the court found that the basis of the defendant’s prejudice argument regarding the death of a potential witness was speculative at best with no specific findings of fact by the circuit court.

Virginia Criminal Defense Lawyer

The right to a speedy trial begins the moment the accused is arrested and must be asserted throughout the progression of the case towards trial. You need an attorney who has experience with challenging criminal convictions on speedy trial violations. Such an attorney can make sure you get the best outcome in your case. Bryan J. Jones is committed to his clients and will develop a defense strategy tailored just for you. Contact Bryan J. Jones, LLC today.