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No excuses on 'Hicks Rule' Prosecutors ignore state's timely trial law at the public's peril.


THERE IS little excuse when a convicted felon is set free because prosecutors make foolish and avoidable mistakes. Within the past three years, the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office has had two convictions reversed because prosecutors did not try the cases in a timely fashion.

In the most recent incident, Ronald Johnson, who had been found guilty by a jury of breaking into the Maxway discount store in Brooklyn Park, was freed because of a prosecutor's inattention to the state's "Hicks Rule." In September 1993, Damien Day was released after a jury convicted him of attempted murder in the shooting of two Annapolis youths. Both acquittals were avoidable.

The state of Maryland requires all defendants to be tried within 180 days after their attorneys make their initial appearance before the court. If scheduling problems and postponements make it impossible to try the case within this time frame, state law allows prosecutors to file for a waiver. Most judges routinely grant these requests. In both cases above, prosecutors failed to file this simple motion.

Such slipshod work can have dire consequences. Two years ago, a similar situation arose in Carroll County, when James H. Van Metre, who raped, murdered and then burned the body of a 28-year-old mother, was acquitted because Thomas E. Hickman, then-Carroll's state's attorney, deliberately ignored the 180-day rule. Fortunately, Van Metre was not free to walk the streets because he was already serving time for another rape conviction in Pennsylvania. He was later convicted on federal charges of kidnapping his victim and is serving a life sentence.

At the moment, the state's attorney's office in Anne Arundel controls the scheduling of criminal cases. Beginning next month, criminal scheduling will be handled by the court clerk, as in all of Maryland's large jurisdictions. To insure that criminal cases are tried in a timely manner, Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee should have an early warning system. Someone in his office must monitor all felony cases to prevent violations of the Hicks rule. Anne Arundel citizens are fortunate that no convicted murderer was freed due to violations of Maryland's timely trial law. Let's keep it that way.

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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