Justice and Due Process

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

This is the fourth Christmas that Officer Joseph Shinners’s widow and young son have spent without him. It’s also the fourth Christmas that Matt Hoover, the man accused of murdering him, has spent in jail without a trial.

Waiting months or even years to go to trial is the rule, rather than the exception. And while heavy caseloads for judges and COVID-19 delays exacerbated the issue, the root of the problem is one of basic incentives.

It’s human nature to avoid things that are hard, and trials are incredibly labor intensive. Attorneys must become intimately familiar with every piece of evidence and determine how to present that evidence in a compelling narrative that serves their purpose. Motions regarding discovery, admissibility, and other legal issues must be briefed and argued. Even the logistics of getting witnesses to come to court at the right time and presenting electronic exhibits on court equipment can be daunting.

Rather than doing all this work, it’s often easier to kick the can down the road. Repeatedly. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently request that court proceedings be delayed: they want more time to investigate, review discovery, or file motions. Certainly there are times when a delay is legitimate: no one wants slapdash justice. However, too often the reason proffered for a delay is merely a pretext; diligent effort by the parties could have resolved issues months earlier. 

It is probably unrealistic to expect mere mortals to efficiently and vigorously prepare cases without some kind of external motivation. That’s why our justice system has made judges, not attorneys, the managers of court calendars. In theory, judges should be setting deadlines and then holding attorneys accountable for meeting them. In practice, this accountability is lacking. 

First, judges are generally reluctant to probe attorneys’ proffered excuses for delay. Rather than maintaining an expectation that cases will progress, they enable a culture of procrastination. Second, even when a judge’s patience eventually wears thin, they are unwilling to impose any sort of consequence that would modify behavior.

In a case where a semi truck driver was accused of having methamphetamine in his system when he hit and killed a passenger in another car, the defense attorney asked for the court to delay the trial, which was set for the following week. His reason? He had failed to obtain an expert witness to opine on whether the driver had methamphetamine in his system.

The case had already been pending for four years and, given that the presence of methamphetamine in the defendant’s body was the key issue in the case, the need for such an expert should have been apparent years earlier. Although the judge was infuriated at this inexcusable lack of preparation, he was unwilling to impose any sort of consequence.

Going forward with the trial was not an option: any conviction would be overturned because of ineffective assistance of counsel. And, although it would have been in the judge’s prerogative to sanction the attorney or report him to the bar association, he did nothing. The case is still pending. 

Given that attorneys incur no personal penalties, even for the most egregious cases of delay-inducing malfeasance, is it any wonder that attorneys blithely and unabashedly ask to delay cases for little or no reason? 

It has been truly said that justice delayed is justice denied. As memories fade and evidence becomes stale, it is harder for juries to accurately determine truth. Victims are left in an intolerable state of limbo. Defendant’s remain free despite their crimes or incarcerated despite the lack of a conviction. It’s time for judges to take control of their cases, raise their expectations, and hold attorneys accountable. Defendants like Matt Hoover and victims like Officer Shinners and his surviving family deserve no less.