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Editorial: Prosecutorial injustice

Expeditious it wasn’t. Daniel Rodriguez and Ernest Green spent a combined total of more than 13 years in federal custody without a conviction, violating the murder suspects’ rights to a speedy trial.

Now, a federal appeals court has set them free. What is undoubtedly good news for the two men may be bad news for the community. It’s also bad news for the law.

What is clear is that prosecutors failed everyone in this case. What is uncertain is what drove the failure, but the choices don’t go much beyond incompetence or arrogance.

Rodriguez and Green were tried last year in a kidnapping-murder case that occurred nearly a decade ago. Prosecutors say that the two men and another defendant abducted Jabril Harper at gunpoint, robbed him of jewelry, drugs and money and then took him to Roosevelt Park, where he was killed.

But the men didn’t come to trial until last year, 68 months after they were detained. A jury last year acquitted Green and a third defendant, Rodshaun Black, of kidnapping and robbing another drug dealer, but deadlocked on the murder charge.

Appropriately, prosecutors wanted to retry the men for the killing, but because federal authorities flagrantly violated the defendants’ constitutional rights, they may never get the chance.

After the trial, and observing the excessive detention of Rodriguez and Green, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny dismissed the charges and ordered the men out of jail and into home detention, giving the government time to appeal. (Skretny’s order did not affect Black, who was in state custody in another case.)

Last week, a federal appeals court affirmed the judge’s ruling and released the pair from home confinement. So two men who were charged with murder are free, not because a jury acquitted them, but because the government blatantly violated their right to a speedy trial.

This may not be the end of the matter. Prosecutors can appeal for a rehearing by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan or ask permission to appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s hard to have any confidence they will win, though, and even if they do, it doesn’t change the fact that they played fast and loose with a fundamental right that belongs to everyone in this country.

It’s not the first time, either. In a decidedly less serious case, federal prosecutors kept a suspected marijuana farmer in custody for seven years before trying him. He was convicted, but his sentence – excessive at 20 years – was overturned by the same appeals court that cited his long pretrial incarceration. He was released in 2017.

Prosecutors, whether federal or state, serve a crucial public function, and their work can be hard. It’s of no value, though, if they don’t do it right. Just follow the rules.

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