Pandemic’s disorder in the court

When anybody’s right to a ‘speedy trial’ is put on hold, even during a pandemic, we should be leery. And that’s exactly what’s happening in Illinois.

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The Illinois Supreme Court has suspended the rule of a speedy trial during the coronavirus pandemic. Holding trials by video would be neither practical nor fair.

Sun-Times file photo

Even during a pandemic, constitutional rights must be respected, which is why we should all be troubled by an Illinois Supreme Court decision earlier this month to suspend a rule requiring a “speedy trial.”

The U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants the right to a speedy trial, and the Illinois Legislature has decided that means a case must be brought to trial within 120 days for someone in custody and 160 days for others. An exception can be made when defense lawyers agree to extend the deadline.

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Under the usual rules, if the state fails to settle a case or bring it to trial within this time frame, a defendant will be freed.

The purpose of the speedy trial rule is to prevent prosecutors from leaving suspects, who are presumed innocent, behind bars indefinitely.

We can’t disagree with the state Supreme Court’s thinking in deciding to suspend the rule of a speedy trial. Although lower courts are holding bond hearings by video during Illinois’ stay-at-home lockdown, full trials by video would not be practical nor fair. That makes it impossible to meet the speedy trial rule except through negotiated pleas.

As a partial response to the problem, prosecutors should do their utmost to move cases along by reaching plea deals with defendants as often as possible. When speedy trial deadlines are blown, a defendant’s rights are compromised. Memories can grow hazy. Evidence can be lost.

Cook County officials have worked diligently in recent years to prevent people from being kept in jail just because they can’t make bail.

But Sheriff Tom Dart acknowledged in a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Tuesday that his efforts to keep the jail population low, so as to limit detainees’ exposure to COVID-19, could be undermined if cases that normally would be brought to a conclusion because of an approaching speedy trial deadline are instead delayed.  

Even if the Illinois Supreme Court re-imposes the speedy trial rules as soon as the pandemic fades, we are likely to see defendants file habeas petitions with federal courts claiming that they should be freed. Some defendants could be freed, even though they were charged with serious crimes.

Our purpose in this editorial is not to knock the state Supreme Court’s decision. We don’t have a better solution. Our purpose is to raise public awareness that constitutional rights are being compromised.

Every effort must be made to get back to a speedy trial in each and every case as soon as possible.

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