“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial …”
That’s the introduction to the 6th Amendment to the Constitution. It’s part of the Bill of Rights. Western New York is having trouble with it. Defendants are being deprived of a fundamental right and citizens are being put at risk.
This shouldn’t be hard.
The Constitution matters. It matters in all of its articles, sections and amendment. But nowhere does it matter more than in the places where it establishes the rules under which governments may deprive individuals of their liberty.
The Founding Fathers were all too familiar with the abuses that an unconstrained government can commit. It’s the reason we have co-equal branches of government, meant in part to act as checks on one another. It’s why conviction of a crime almost always requires a unanimous verdict. And it’s why American governments aren’t allowed to accuse people of a crime and then let them stew indefinitely without trial. They are required to prove their case – beyond a reasonable doubt – and to do it speedily.
Western New York governments have twice failed, abjectly, to abide by this requirement in recent months. In one case, an accused marijuana farmer waited seven years in jail before going to trial. More recently, two men accused of a vicious murder have been released into home detention because of government’s failure to bring them to trial. That’s something on which the people of Western New York might stew, themselves.
In each case, the judge made the right decision. The requirement is not onerous. It appropriately restrains the power of the state. Compliance requires only professional attention and a reliable timer.
The decision to release the suspected killers was directly influenced by the pot farmer’s case. In it, Joseph Tigano III was arrested in 2008 on charges of operating a large marijuana farm in Cattaraugus County, but waited seven years in jail before his case went to trial. Speedy it was not.
Tigano was ultimately convicted and sentenced to a mandated – and excessive – sentence of 20 years in prison. In November, though, an appeals court ordered him released, citing his time in jail without trial. His pre-trial custody was the longest ever for a defendant in a speedy trial case in the court’s history.
That case factored into U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny’s decision last week to release two men facing murder charges and put them in home detention with electronic monitoring. That Buffalo case dates to 2009, when authorities say Ernest Green, Daniel Rodriguez and another man, Rodshaun Black, kidnapped Jabril Harper at gunpoint, robbed him of jewelry, drugs and money before killing him in Roosevelt Park. The defendants faced the death penalty.
An initial trial ended in a hung jury on the murder count. Citing the Green’s and Rodriguez’s 68 months in jail without a conviction, Skretny this month ordered their release from jail and dismissed the murder charge, while giving prosecutors time to appeal. It’s interesting that prosecutors can speedily find the time to file an appeal but not to try the case. Black remains in custody on a separate conviction.
The court in the marijuana case insisted that “No single extraordinary factor” caused the seven-year delay, which was instead “the result of countess small choices and neglects.” That may be so, but overarching it all there is a single extraordinary factor: indifference to the Constitution.
That’s at play in the Buffalo case, too, but instead of freeing a pot farmer it may release suspected murderers – men who trail other felony convictions behind them. The judges who made these painful decisions did their jobs. It’s too bad prosecutors didn’t do theirs.