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Right to a Speedy Trial Severely Compromised Deep in the Heart of Texas

By J. Edward Nelson


In a recent appearance at a rally for Governor Rick Perry of Texas former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin paraphrased conservative radio and television personality Glenn Beck in stating that, “The word is out…You guys (Texans) are just walking on water.” Making reference to the fact that state legislators in Texas have enacted laws favorable for businesses to retain profits and create new jobs.

Not so fast Sarah, something smells rotten in the state of Texas.

How can the political machinations of a state in which the legal right to a speedy trial is dubious at best be described as “walking on water?” In 2005 the Texas statute which set a definitive time limit for criminal prosecutions to be brought to trial, three months from the date of arrest or detention for misdemeanors and six months for felonies, was repealed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Thus, non-federal criminal prosecutions – federal crimes being covered under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 – were no longer bound by a specific time constraint in order to be brought to trial.

The court held that prosecutors should not be encumbered by an accused person’s right to a speedy trial in preparing a criminal prosecution, and that such legislation represented a conflict of interest because one branch of government – the state legislature – put legal restrictions on another branch of government – the judiciary. It’s interesting to note that the court decided that a right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment has less importance from a legal standpoint than the state’s ability to pursue criminal charges. And isn’t the purpose of the legislative branch of our government to vote laws into existence as elected officials? Would the Texas Supreme Court prefer that the judicial branch enforce and author our laws? It seems like the highest court in Texas has confused “conflict of interest” with “checks and balances,” inadvertantly subverting the Will of the People.

Since the right to a speedy trial is still guaranteed by the Texas State Constitution as well as the U.S. Constitution, although no specific time limit is specified in either, violations of this right in Texas are judged on an “ad hoc” basis given four factors established by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 (Barker v. Wingo), to be determined by a reviewing court.

What does this mean for Texans aside from the fact that they have to jump through a few more hoops in order to secure their rights under the Sixth Amendment?

Well, if you cannot afford bail, or are denied bail, then it is not uncommon to languish in jail for two years or more awaiting trial in Texas. In an October 4, 2009 article written by Lise Olsen in the Houston Chronicle titled, “Hundreds kept jailed for months pretrial,” it was reported that as many as 500 individuals unable to post bail had been detained in the Harris County jail for a year or more awaiting trial as of July 2009.

Harris County encompasses the Houston, Sugar Land, Bay town metropolitan area in Texas.

Consultants hired by Harris County stated that it should take half as long to process these cases; about as long as the repealed statute formerly stipulated.

In a series of emails I have corresponded with the wife of an inmate who has been detained on felony charges at the Harris County jail since January 2009. Prior to the incarceration, her husband was a manager at an advertising firm, they lived with their three children in a big, brand new home in Houston, having recently left a nice home and lifestyle in the mid-west for a premium job opportunity in Texas (they were the embodiment of the fruits of the “walking on water” Texas governance which Mrs. Palin referenced in her remarks). His 12 year old son was one of Houston’s best AAU basketball players and his 10 year old daughter is a straight “A”student, as well as being an accomplished track athlete. They also have a 2 ½ year old son who is addicted to McDonald’s chicken mcnuggets (I intend to admonish his mother for fostering this bad habit).

Six months into this ordeal they had lost their home, spent $10,000 on legal fees, $5,000 on bail (he was released and then arrested on identical charges the next day), he obviously lost the job which caused them to relocate to Texas, and his oldest son has had difficulty adjusting to the absence of his father which manifested in behavioral problems in school and disinterest in playing basketball.

And why has a year gone by without a trial, and caused a family that was arguably living the American dream to endure thirteen months (and counting) of agony? The prosecution contends that they have been waiting for over six months for the Medical Examiner’s Office to complete a DNA test. Six months (and counting) for a DNA test when any private laboratory would offer results for DNA testing within three to five business days, and next day service for an additional fee.

Once again the government is shown to be far less effective than its private sector counterpart. Governmental inefficiency in this particular instance, combined with the lack of constraint on Texas prosecutors, has resulted in a costly, on-going dilemma of monumental proportions in the “Lone Star State.” What is that “cost” you ask? Something people rarely regain once it’s taken away by government officials: Freedom.

It was very hypocritical of Palin to pat Texas legislators on the back when hundreds of Texans are being denied one of the most fundamental rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution.

I would love to see Sarah Palin ask any one of the 500 hundred inmates unable to post bail and currently residing in the Harris County jail for over a year, waiting for their day in court, separated from their families, precisely which elected officials in Texas “walk on water” (yes, like Jesus).


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