Kansas legislators are weighing a plea from the state’s district attorneys to suspend the state law governing speedy trials because of the immense backlog in cases created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
State law currently calls for jury trials to take place within 150 days of arrest if an individual is in custody or 180 days if a defendant is free. If a person is not tried in that time, their case will be dismissed without the possibility of refiling. Both the House and Senate are considering bills that would suspend those requirements.
“If we do not get a change to put a temporary hold on this speedy trial, to give us time to focus on justice rather than timeline, then we are putting our community and every citizen in our community at risk,” Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree said in an interview.
In March 2020, Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert put speedy trial requirements on hold due to the pandemic. But when that order expires March 31, counties will be crunched for time on the cases that have piled up over the last year.
Dupree and other district attorneys said it won’t be possible to get through all of their cases in 150 days when courts reopen.
In Sedgwick County, District Attorney Marc Bennett’s office has more than 50 murder cases and 150 shootings pending from last year, in addition to hundreds of other criminal cases. He said it would be nearly impossible to get through all of them in front of the district’s 10 judges, and he doesn’t want to be in a position where he has to decide which cases get heard and which get dismissed.
“I’m not in a position to negotiate,” Bennett told lawmakers. “I have to have something like this. If it dies ... there’s no way to try them all.”
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said while the accused deserve a speedy trial, it’s also important for prosecutors to have time to argue each case for the victims and the safety of the public.
“The vast majority of people, at least in the major jurisdictions across the state, that are sitting in there are not some kid who shoplifted at Walmart,” he said at a Feb. 4 Senate hearing. “They deserve a right to a speedy trial, but at the same time, the public has a right to keep safe and make sure that dangerous individuals aren’t released back in the communities.”
Opponents of the bill say it’s it borders on violating the constitutional right to a speedy trial. Austin Spillar, a policy associate with the Kansas ACLU, said the proposal would not only take away the right to a speedy trial but also exacerbate already existing racism in the justice system.
“We do acknowledge that there are very real challenges that are faced by our courts and our criminal justice system during this pandemic, but stripping people of their constitutional rights is never the answer,” Spillar said.
Jessica Glendening, a representative for the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said looking at changes on a case by case basis would serve as a better solution. She said if district courts were allowed to determine schedules and push back speedy trial requirements, it would ensure constitutionality, rather than approving a “blanket extension that really doesn’t protect those rights for everyone.
FINDING A COMPROMISE
The legislation originally waived speedy trial requirements until 2024, but a possible compromise between the prosecutors and public defenders could result in a shortened time frame for the suspension. The courts will need two years at the very least, Bennett said.
During a hearing, Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, asked prosecutors why they weren’t able to adapt the way other entities, like schools and businesses, have through Zoom or Webex.
Bennett said because a health crisis has never shut down courts, they don’t have the ability to change the way procedure works unless the US Supreme Court weighs in. He said the accused have the right to look their accusers face to face in a courtroom, and that wouldn’t be possible if their trials were done virtually.
“There has never been a situation where a person could not get into a courtroom and physically be across the room from their accusers, from the witnesses,” he said.
Sen. Rick Wilborn, a Republican from McPherson and vice chair of the judiciary committee, said district attorneys and public defenders are working to reach a compromise on the bill before the committee votes on it. He said while he doesn’t know what the final product will look like, he and Judiciary Chair Kellie Warren, R-Leawood, are “anxiously awaiting” the new version of the bill.
“We need to be cautious we don’t encroach on any constitutional rights,” Wilborn said.
Warren was not available for comment at the time of publication.
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported that Kansas district attorneys are seeking suspension of defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. They are seeking suspension of the state’s speedy trial statute because of the case backlog produced by the COVID-19 pandemic.