But that only applies to federal courts. In New Mexico, a backlog in the district courts has meant far too many defendants have been denied their Sixth Amendment right. The problem has been greatest in Albuquerque, leading the Legislature to pass the Bernalillo Criminal Justice and Review Act in 2013.
That bill led to the creation of the Case Management Pilot Program For Criminal Cases, which imposed deadlines similar to the federal law. The new law led to a 250 percent increase in the number of trials conducted, according to a 2017 report by the Legislature.
But, it also resulted in far too many cases being dismissed, the report said. And, it noted the law, “created an incentive for defense counsel not to resolve even the most routine cases in an efficient manner.”
Ultimately, the new law resulted in a 40 percent reduction in trials for both property and violent crimes from 2014 to 2016, which helped spark Albuquerque’s sharp increase in crime.
What started as a pilot program has grown to include other districts. And recently, the Third Judicial District in Las Cruces was the latest to fall under a Case Management Order from the state Supreme Court. That will mean new deadlines for trials in our local district court.
It will also mean as many as 500 cases being dismissed, Third Judicial District Attorney Gerald Byers told the Las Cruces Sun-News. One case charging involuntary manslaughter for a woman’s death has already been dismissed, he said.
If his number is accurate, it’s a sad indictment on Byers and the ability of his office to efficiently bring cases to trial.
The Sun-News reported that more than a dozen defendants have been in jail for longer than a year waiting for their cases to get to trial. Four of them spent more than 1,000 days in jail before getting their day in court. That’s not acceptable.
It’s important to note that cases dismissed now can be filed again later. And, Byers has vowed to do just that in the involuntary manslaughter case mentioned above.
There’s no doubt that this process is going to be messy, and will likely result in some criminals being able to get away with their crimes, at least temporarily. But that kind of shock to the system may be necessary.
The Sixth Amendment doesn’t suggest a speedy trial, it demands one. Holding someone in jail for more than 1,000 days before trial is a clear violation of that person’s constitutional rights.
The legislative report provides a pretty good roadmap as to how Byers should handle this. Mistakes made in Bernalillo County should not be repeated here.
Our District Attorney’s Office has struggled to bring cases to trial in a timely manner. Charges against Santa Fe Deputy Tai Chan, who was accused of killing his partner, were dismissed because his right to a speedy trial was violated.
Prosecutors missed so many deadlines in the trial of a man accused of killing the infant child known as Baby Favi that the judge tossed out all of the exhibits they had planned to use as evidence.
This probably wasn’t going to fix itself.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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