A Baltimore Circuit judge threw out first-degree murder charges against four men yesterday because their trial had been delayed for so long that it "boggles the imagination."
After Judge Roger W. Brown's decision, the defendants, who have been awaiting trial for nearly three years and whose cases have been postponed more than a dozen times, hugged family members and beamed.
In her Randallstown home, the victim's mother, a retired Baltimore schoolteacher, was not angry, just despondent.
The court system did not care about her only child's death, she said, and that's just the way things are.
"Vengeance is not mine," said Mamie Suggs, mother of Shawn L. Suggs, who was killed in October 1995 at age 21. "I can't do one thing to them."
The trial delays went far beyond the required six-month time limit after a defendant's first court appearance for a case to be tried.
Brown's ruling, based on a recent state Court of Special Appeals decision, could spur a wave of challenges to pending criminal cases that have been postponed time and time again because of the clogged court system.
No one knows exactly how many cases could be in jeopardy. A review of Circuit Court records shows there may be several legal battles ahead in serious criminal cases.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what the possibilities are," said Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, the administrative judge for the criminal docket, who has vowed to crack down on trial delays.
William Flowers, set to be tried Friday, has had his first-degree murder case postponed more than 15 times over three years.
The case against another first-degree murder defendant, Ridgely Bond, has been postponed 13 times over more than two years.
Yesterday's dismissal of murder charges was set in motion by the Court of Special Appeals decision in December that threw out the sex crime conviction of a Baltimore County man, James T. Brown Jr., because his case had been postponed nine times when no courtroom was available for his trial. The case was postponed seven times after the six-month speedy trial deadline.
What the appellate court ruled -- and what is proving nettlesome for the judges responsible for conducting trials -- is that a judge's finding of "good cause" to delay the trial past the speedy trial deadline was not good enough.
"The circuit courts may not avoid [speedy trial] requirements by assigning trial dates that have no practical meaning," the appellate judges said in their opinion. "The serial postponements of trial due to the unavailability of the court is the equivalent of the failure to assign any trial date."
Prosecutors are appealing that case to the state's highest court on the grounds, essentially, that a judge's decision of good cause should be enough reason to postpone a case.
Baltimore Deputy State's Attorney Haven Kodeck said the office will consider appealing yesterday's decision that dropped charges against Donte Spivey, 22; William Harrison, 21; Stacey Wilson, 29; and Jay Anderson, 30.
If the state wins the appeal, the men could be recharged, prosecutors said.
Kodeck said dismissal illustrates the need for additional funding for the court system. There are 11 criminal felony courts to handle roughly 7,000 cases filed every year in Baltimore.
"We can't do 1970s business with a 1990 docket. It can't work," Kodeck said. "Maybe this is what we need to spur trying these cases."
In the meantime, he said, his office will review procedures to ensure that cases are closely monitored and tried in a timely manner. "We are never happy when a case, particularly a murder case, gets dismissed."
Circuit Court statistics show that of the nearly 30,000 criminal cases heard in the first 10 months of 1998, 43 percent were postponed. The number of cases heard includes cases brought back into court after a postponement.
There is a backlog of more than 5,500 criminal cases.
In the Suggs slaying case, the defendants were accused of ambushing the victim in the 3400 block of Auchentoroly Terrace and shooting him four times, court records say.
After spending several months in jail, the defendants were released on bail. Defense attorney M. Gordon Tayback said a judge released his client, Stacey Wilson, because the judge was concerned that the defendant had spent too much time behind bars while awaiting trial.
While out on bail, Spivey was charged with murder in another slaying. He is behind bars awaiting trial in that case.
The trials of Spivey and the other defendants were postponed 12 times after their speedy trial deadlines had expired, Brown ruled. In six instances the court was unavailable, in the other six either defense attorneys or prosecutors and their witnesses were unavailable.
One of the state's main witnesses was shot to death this summer, prompting prosecutors to ask for one of the postponements.
Yesterday, Assistant State's Attorney Gary D. Schenker argued that the delays benefited the defense team. Their clients were free on the street and they agreed to the postponements.
Brown shot back that the speedy trial rule is not meant only to protect defendants. Swift justice is in the public's interest.
"The whole point of the [speedy trial] rule is the expeditious movement of cases through the system," Brown said. "It's to serve the public in general."
Pub Date: 1/06/99