Florida Extends 'Speedy Trial' Rights to Victims, State

Under a new Florida law, crime victims and prosecutors will also have a right to a speedy trial — a right traditionally reserved for defendants. Critics say the move will clog the courts with appeals and lead to more convictions being overturned later.

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One of the hallmarks of the US legal system has always been the right to a speedy trial. Traditionally, that right has only applied to defendants. Starting today, a new Florida state law guarantees the right to both sides of the courtroom. NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

It was a warm June night in 1999, when Deborah Legue(ph) heard the doorbell ring at her Deltona, Florida, home.

Ms. DEBORAH LEGUE (Deltona, Florida): And as I was walking to the door, I was--you know, I yelled, `Who is it?' And the bullets just started flying through the door handle, kind of like what you see in the movies.

BURBANK: It was her ex-husband, out for revenge. For hours, he held Legue and her young son hostage, beating them with his gun and raping her.

Ms. LEGUE: You know, if he couldn't have me, nobody else was going to, and, you know, he just kind of like lost his mind.

BURBANK: Although he did finally surrender to police, Legue's saga was far from over. With multiple delays, the trial took an agonizing two years. And like many victims, Deborah Legue says it's taken still longer for her to get her life back.

Mr. JOHN TANNER (State's Attorney): They need closure, especially in violent crimes, sexual crimes, cases of abuse. Quite often, those victims don't even begin to heal until that case is concluded.

BURBANK: State's attorney John Tanner wants that closure to come as quickly as possible. That's why, he says, he came up with the idea for a new law which allows prosecutors to demand a case go to trial if they feel the defense is dragging its feet. The law passed both houses of the Florida state Legislature with only one dissenting vote.

Mr. TANNER: The defendant has the right to prepare their case, but they don't have the right to endlessly delay the case and avoid the consequences for their crimes.

Mr. RICHARD HERSCH (Defense Attorney): No, that's really unfair.

BURBANK: Richard Hersch is a Miami defense attorney.

Mr. HERSCH: I mean, the major cause of delays in cases are the crush of cases that exist in the system, the failure of witnesses to show for depositions or hearings and the prosecution taking too much time to get their cases together.

BURBANK: Hersch says, if anything, it's his clients who are antsy to get their trials under way, since their lives are on hold, too. Hersch and even some prosecutors also wonder if the new law could be grounds for appeals once a verdict has been reached. But John Tanner disagrees. And besides, he says, there are legitimate reasons to speed cases along.

Mr. TANNER: Witnesses die. Witnesses, and particularly in Florida, move away. You know, this is a transient state. They've established a new life and they don't really want to come back.

BURBANK: Under the new law, prosecutors can demand that a trial start if they've handed over their lists of witnesses and evidence and if, over their objections, the defense has already been granted three delays. Even then, the judge can still delay the trial if they think speeding things up might deprive the defendant of their rights. That caveat makes the law little more than window dressing, says Richard Hersch.

Mr. HERSCH: It makes for a nice appearance. It does allow for the legislators to tell their constituencies that they are pushing to get cases resolved quickly.

BURBANK: But it may not do a whole lot more. Both sides agree that judges still have the ultimate say in how quickly or slowly a trial progresses. John Tanner, who spearheaded the new law, hopes that if nothing else, he can use it as a tool to shame judges into speeding things up.

Mr. TANNER: The Legislature did not provide us a law with teeth to do anything to the judge. But I don't think most of our judges will flaunt this law and ignore the rights of the victim. If they do, I'm going to call it to public attention.

BURBANK: And he's not wasting any time. On Tanner's desk is a stack of papers, each one relating to a case he says is just begging for a speedy trial. Luke Burbank, NPR News, Miami.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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