Criminal Defendants’ Rights to Speedy Trial

Locked up for 10 years, just waiting for her trial, she finally faced the jury, and the jury acquitted her.  But how could someone be kept that long without a trial in America?

Kathleen Hilton was charged in Lawrence Superior Court, Massachusetts, of setting a fire that killed five people.  She was diagnosed with mental retardation and was initially found incompetent to stand trial.  After some weeks of being observed at Taunton State Hospital, however, psychiatrists opined that she understood the charges against her and was able to assist her attorney in her defense.

The fire took place in 1999 in Lynn, Massachusetts.  Three children died and a fireman was injured in the fire.  Prosecutors argued that Ms. Hilton set the fire to kill her son’s former girlfriend because the woman would not let her son see his two children.  Her grandchildren lived there, and they survived.  However, other residents, Heriberto Feliciano, his wife, Sonia Hernandez, their two daughters, Sonia and Maria, and a niece, Glorimar Santiago were killed.

The case was delayed from trial by legal battles and rulings back and forth between he Superior Court and the Supreme Judicial Court.  The legal battles concerned the admissibility made by Ms. Hilton when she was arrested three days after the fire.  Allegedly she told police that she had struck a match and dropped it on the wooden porch, which she said she had soaked with flammable scented oil.  Police claimed she told them she watched the house erupt in flames and then walked home.

There was another statement at issue.  Following her arraignment, Ms. Hilton allegedly told a court officer escorting her to a holding cell, “I hope he forgives me.”  When asked what she was talking about, she allegedly said, “I hope my son forgives me.  I could have killed my grandchildren.”

Hilton’s court-appointed lawyer, Michael Natola, argued her statements were made in an attempt to protect her son, Charles Loayza, who was in a custody battle with his girlfriend, Krystina Sutherland, and had himself threatened to burn down her house.  Natola urged that Hilton made up her story because she believed her son, a prime suspect of setting the fire, would go to prison.   Her son had an alibi, however, and the police did not remain a suspect.

The right to a speedy trial is protected by the federal and state constitutions.

The United States Constitution provides in the VI Amendment:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Had Ms. Hilton’s lawyer demanded a speedy trial, she likely would have received an earlier trial.  However, it appears her own lawyer was wrangling with the courts for some rulings that her lawyer thought were important enough to wait for the trial.  Facing six counts of life sentence, the stakes were great.  So long as a person or her lawyer is part of the process causing the delay from trial, a person cannot blame the system.

Indeed, The Lawrence Superior Court Rules provided that murder cases take no more than a year from arraignment to trial.  That is speedy, considering all the evidence that must be assembled and disputed by the prosecution and defense and ruled upon by the court before beginning the trial before the jury.  The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which predated that of the United States about nine years, does not specifically provide for “speedy trial”, but it has a rigorous provision for the Writ of Habeas Corpus, and historically this has been an effective  safeguard against prisoners languishing in jail.

Oklahoma’s Constitution provides:

Article 2 – Bill of Rights     § 20. Rights of accused in criminal cases.

In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the county in which the crime shall have been committed …”

In order to protect a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, it’s important he or she has an experienced and competent criminal defense lawyer so that issues can be dealt with effectively, and timely. There are a number of things to consider when choosing a criminal defense attorney, which is why I recommend anyone charged with a crime visit my website at http://www.oklahomacriminallawoffice.com to learn what to look for when making this critical decision.

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