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YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS | Do 'speedy trials' make sense during a pandemic?

Like almost every aspect of our lives, the judicial system is being profoundly affected by COVID-19 and the result is a sea change in my legal philosophy.
Attorney David Betras

As you know because you’re a Mahoning Matters reader, Mahoning County is experiencing a spike in new COVID-19 cases and is now under a red alert for the coronavirus. 

That means a public health emergency exists because an extremely high risk of exposure to and spread of the disease exists.

People who live in areas under a Level 3 “red” status are urged to take these steps to protect themselves and others: 

• Maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet from non-household members;
• Wear face coverings in public, especially when social distancing is difficult to maintain;
• Increase caution when interacting with those not practicing social distancing or wearing face masks;
• Decrease in-person interactions with others;
• Limit attending gatherings of any number.

I know some of you are wondering why I’m discussing COVID-19 in a column that’s supposed to be devoted to legal issues. The answer is simple: Like almost every aspect of our lives, the judicial system is being profoundly affected by the pandemic.

For example, on Monday I am supposed to begin a jury trial in a murder case in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court even though the proceeding will violate many of the protocols applicable to communities under Level 3. In addition, while absolutely necessary to safeguard the health of all involved, wearing masks and social distancing will make it difficult, if not impossible for me to effectively represent my client. 

And, to make matters worse, because many people have been released from jury duty because they are fearful of being exposed to COVID, I have serious doubts that the jury pool accurately reflects the makeup of our community.  

For those reasons, I’ve filed a number of motions seeking a delay in the case and my client has waived his right to speedy trial. 

Filing those motions and the waiver represents a sea change in my legal philosophy. Since I began practicing criminal law more than three decades ago, I subscribed to the philosophy that justice delayed is justice denied. 

I’m not alone. 

The right to a speedy trial is regarded as one of the most important protections afforded citizens by the U.S. and Ohio constitutions. The authors of those founding documents believed no one charged with a crime should languish in jail while waiting for their case to be adjudicated. They also understood that if too much time elapses between the date of the alleged crime and the trial, witnesses may die or leave the area, their memories may fade, and physical evidence may be lost. 

All of those factors jeopardize the rights of a criminal defendant.

With all that in mind, under normal circumstances, I would be ready, willing, and eager to try the case when the judge bangs his gavel on Monday.

But as we all know, not much is normal in today’s world. So you won’t be surprised to learn that “better safe than sorry” has supplanted “justice delayed, justice denied” as my mantra. 

Delaying jury trials until the pandemic has subsided will both ensure that they don’t turn into “super spreader” events and serve the interests of justice. 

Waiting is clearly the judicious thing to do.