As I read this morning’s newspaper, I was taken aback by a question that applies to two very different criminal cases: Just what is a speedy trial today? And what does that constitutional guarantee mean to those of us who depend on it?
The first story concerns Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was captured in 2004 in connection with two international terrorism cases—the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. His lawyers for argued that five years of detention had deprived Ghailani of his right to a speedy trial. That argument was rejected on Wednesday (July 13), and as a result Ghailani will now face a trial set for September. But the question his defense raised lingers in relation to the workings of the U.S. justice system in general. And it pertains to charges even against U.S. citizens for a wide-ranging assortment of alleged criminal behavior that may have nothing to do with terrorism or international intrigue. For Ghailani, six years of detention before trial was not judged to be an abridgement of his constitutional right. What about others?
The second story describes the Danziger case now playing out in New Orleans. In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, four police officers and two former officers shot a number of unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge, killing at least one man and wounding several others, including four members of a single family, the Bartholomews. The Louisiana governor, Mitch Landrieu, asked the Justice Department to help with this case, given a history of police corruption in the city. No doubt, the reasons for the five-year pre-trial delay have to do with the chaotic circumstances brought by the hurricane, an alleged cover-up by some within the police department, the complexity of events and the number of individuals harmed and also the fact that an investigation was required to sort it all out before bringing the charges. Here again, though, we see a lengthy delay in the justice process that on Monday (July 12, 2010) finally reached the indictment stage delivered by a grand jury. The actual prosecution of the case has yet to commence.
So what we see are two delays, one of six years and another of five years. What can we make of it? Whatever the framers of our Constitution originally had in mind when they guaranteed a “speedy trial,” the meting out of justice today appears to be a process that can require many stages and the involvement of local and regional courts, as well as the federal Justice Department. That is precisely what happened in the Danziger case. All of that takes time. One could argue that the current practice simply takes too long—for everyone. But one might counter by saying that “hasty justice” is no better, and that the court process simply takes as long as it takes—all things considered. What one cannot argue, it seems to me, is that a suspected foreign terrorist like Ghailani has suffered essentially worse delays than the people in the New Orleans Danziger case. Time is relative. Does that make the constitutional right to a speedy trial worth less? What do you think? I’m still pondering the notion that justice, even slow justice, is worth guaranteeing.
Karen Sue Smith