As reported by Bill Wichert of the Star-Ledger, after spending nearly five years in jail, 48-year-old Newark resident Tariq Kyam, who has prior convictions, is about a month away from what was expected to be the first of his six robbery trials.
There will be six trials, because he is charged in six separate robberies and he won a motion to sever the incidents into separate trials.
“It’s been a pretty active case for a case that hasn’t been resolved yet,” Kyam’s attorney, John McMahon, said the week before the Dec. 18 hearing, noting the various proceedings in a case involving multiple alleged offenses.
But the long-running case also illustrates how, unlike most other states and the federal government, New Jersey has no fixed deadline for when criminal trials must begin.
Now some legal groups are calling on the state Supreme Court to start the clock.
Through a committee formed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender has proposed a deadline for when trials must commence. In a pair of court cases, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey also has been pushing for a time limit.
A time limit, supporters say, would reduce incarceration costs, assist in gathering evidence and bring greater fairness and accountability to a system where defendants may face different time frames in bringing their cases to trial.
“That sort of disparity and disparate treatment … just breeds disrespect for the entire criminal justice system,” Assistant Public Defender Dale Jones said. “You want to be treated … quickly, fairly and efficiently in the criminal justice system.”
A driving force behind setting a time limit are concerns over defendants in pre-trial detention who are unable to afford bail. Some innocent people may be inclined to plead guilty because doing so seems like their shortest route out of jail, supporters say.
Giving pre-trial detainees a sense of certainty about when their cases would go to trial “gives meaning to the presumption of innocence,” said Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney for the ACLU-NJ.
“That’s a meaningless presumption if we allow the person to be taken from their family, taken from their work, taken from their home for years on end,” said Shalom. “You’re presumed innocent, but you’re treated as if you’re guilty.”
As detainees are brought to trial under a fixed time frame, taxpayers would save money on the costs of housing them at county jails, Jones and Shalom said. As Jones put it, “the fewer days … they spend in a county jail, the greater the savings.”
One of those detainees is Newark resident Lamarr Cavaness.
Cavaness,22, has been in custody at the Essex County Correctional Facility since July 2012 in connection with an armed carjacking case. His next scheduled court appearance is in January.
His mother, Crystal Perry, said Cavaness is innocent and “doesn’t deserve to sit there like that,” but Perry said she can’t afford the roughly $300,000 bail needed to have him released.
“It’s a sad fact of reality, but that’s what we’re faced with every day out here,” Perry said. “Every day there (are) parents like myself that wish they can fight harder for their kids, but we can’t … and I just don’t know what to do.”
A defendant’s right to a speedy trial is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The judiciary in New Jersey also has established goals for when cases should be disposed.
Without a set time limit, however, New Jersey courts utilize a four-factor test to determine whether a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated on a case-by-case basis.
Those factors — based on a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision — are the length of the delay; reason for the delay; the defendant’s assertion of the right to a speedy trial; and the prejudice caused to the defendant by the delay. Prejudice could include the impact on a defendant’s employment and finances.
But some critics say the discretion used by judges in applying that test can yield unpredictable results.
Ronald Chen, acting dean of Rutgers Law School in Newark who has served as counsel for the ACLU-NJ, said the test is “too flexible to really be meaningful in any practical circumstance.”
A time limit, Chen added, “provides certainty. It’s actually for the benefit of prosecutors. There’s no more guesswork about how long is too long.”
A fixed time frame also would assist both sides in securing witnesses, Chen said. “It’s much easier to get evidence both ways, prosecution and defense, if the trial occurs fairly quickly afterwards,” Chen said. “People’s memories fade.”
In an April decision — involving a case where the ACLU-NJ called for establishing a time limit — the state Supreme Court acknowledged how “a case-by-case analysis rather than a bright-line time limitation may lead to seemingly disparate results.”
In one case, for example, a delay of 344 days was deemed unacceptable, while in another case, a 32-month delay was considered justifiable, the decision states.
But the court declined to adopt a specific time limit and upheld the four-factor test as the governing standard to evaluate speedy trial claims.
“We do so with the knowledge that facts of an individual case are the best indicators of whether a right to a speedy trial has been violated,” according to the decision.
Chaired by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, the Supreme Court Joint Committee on Criminal Justice is now considering a time limit. The committee will ultimately present its recommendations to the Supreme Court.
As committee members, attorneys with the public’s defender’s office have proposed a 180-day time limit to bring cases to trial after a detainee has been indicted, according to Jones.
But several exceptions would be built into such a deadline to stop the clock, such as when a defendant files certain pre-trial motions, Jones said. That type of exception could have paused a time limit in Kyam’s case, given his motion to separate the charges against him into separate trials.
“I think it’s fair to the state if a defendant files a motion that’s obviously gonna take up time,” Jones said. “It’s a rule of fairness. You have to be … equally fair to the state as you are to the defendant.”
Joseph Barraco, assistant director for criminal practice in the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, who also is a committee member, said setting a time limit would improve the system and provide greater accountability to the public, defendants and victims.
But Barraco also pointed out that the system still needs enough judges to enforce a time limit and expedite cases. A shortage of judges is frequently cited as one of the major factors behind judicial delays in New Jersey.
“Obviously … the only person that can dispose of cases is a judge,” Barraco said.