It’s 4 a.m. and Ralph Berry shakes out of his sleep. He perches on the edge of a bed, shaking, screaming for unnamed people not to hurt him. He’s terrified.
In a few minutes, his mother is in the room, holding him down. “It’s OK, Ralph! It’s OK!” she screams.
And it’s only then, in a fog of anxiety, that the 21-year-old realizes he’s not in jail any more. He’s at home.
Three years of my life I spent in there, that’s three years I’m not getting back, ever
- Ralph Berry
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution says that the “accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.” But that rings hollow in some parts of the U.S.
The Bronx, where Ralph Berry is from, is an acute example of what is happening to already overwhelmed judicial systems from Louisiana to California and Texas. Defendants, often poor, are routinely denied their right to a speedy trial.
Under New York state law, defendants have the right to face trial within 180 days of being arrested. But in the Bronx, a felony defendant can wait up to 1,018 days between indictment and trial — more than double the wait times in wealthier boroughs of New York.
Police accused Ralph Berry of murdering a man outside a nightclub in the Bronx in 2010. Berry denied even knowing about the shooting, but that made little difference. After witnesses identified him in a lineup, he was arrested and sent to Riker’s Island jail.
A process that should take months dragged on; Berry sat in jail for three years before he was given a trial. He appeared in court over 20 times.
“I was so scared,” he says. “I didn’t know how to survive in that sort of world. There be some mean dudes in there … mean dudes.”
The cruelest irony is police actually found DNA evidence implicating someone else in the murder, just two days after it happened, records show. But they didn’t hand it to prosecutors, so it was never used in court.
A Fusion investigation has found that across the country, citizens — some facing trials for crimes they never committed — are being deprived of their right to a speedy trial. As states slash judicial funding, it’s not just many accused who are suffering. Victims are being forced to wait years to see justice for crimes committed against them or their family members.
In more than 15 states, we found people locked up, waiting five years or more for their day in court.
Fusion has been unable to find any government or private entity that monitors trial wait times nationally, making it impossible to know how broadly defendants’ rights are being violated. No one tracks and compares wait times for court trials in states around the country. So there is no way of knowing how often states are denying the accused their constitutional right to speedy justice.
“If we don’t keep track of the data, we have no idea if we’re respecting citizens’ constitutional rights,” says Alicia Bannon, a researcher at the Brennan Center for Justice.
New York, where Ralph Berry sat for three years in jail, does keep this data. But even monitoring trial wait times did little to limit the time he waited for justice.
According to Bannon, good data collection is an essential part of ensuring the proper administration of justice.
“Part of investing in our courts should be investing in good data collection,” she says, “so that we’re able to set good benchmarks to see how different states are performing against each other.”
The last comprehensive study we found that compared trial wait times state by state was published in 1976. Back then, lawmakers worried about court delays; now it’s an issue that’s practically been forgotten.
Fusion found that it’s almost impossible to collect the data. We resorted to calling a sample of individual districts around the country to analyze the state of the system. We found that, even at that level, data is limited. In California, the courts monitor their wait times, and most of their cases are processed within 100 days. Both Illinois and Mississippiprovide general summaries in their annual reports on how long it takes to resolve cases, and it appears most are resolved within 100 days, too.Wisconsin tries a little harder and provides statistical breakdowns on the age of their cases.
Arizona has introduced what they call the “Fill The Gap” plan in an attempt to reduce the backlog there. In Maricopa County, administrators are aiming to get 85 percent of cases processed within 180 days. At the moment, 20 percent of accused felons wait more than that for their day in court. But then we found some states — like Alabama, Florida and Georgia — that have no data on how long the accused must wait for trial.
Here is a graphic illustrating some of the worst cases we’ve discovered.
In Calisque Parish, Louisiana, Jonathan Edward Boyer, accused of shooting a man during an armed robbery, waited in jail for seven years until he was granted his day in court. The average wait time for a felony trial in Calisque is 501 days, records show.
There weren’t enough public defenders to go around, so Boyer’s case was delayed so long, it ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court. Boyer argued that the state of Louisiana, by its failure to fund the courts properly, had deprived him of his right to a speedy trial.
He was ultimately tried and found guilty, and the Supreme Court threw his case out — but not before Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself originally from the Bronx, expressed her concern about the amount of time Boyner waited for trail. “Conditions of this kind cannot persist without endangering constitutional rights,” she said.
Another egregious example is Harris County, Texas, where about 200 inmates spent more time behind bars waiting for trial than they might have served if they were found guilty, according to a 2012 report by the Houston Chronicle.
At any given time, about 500 people were locked up there for more than a year without ever having a trial. One man who was accused of capital murder had already waited seven years and eight months behind bars with no trial.
“Delays in processing criminal cases is symptomatic of a broader failure to adequately fund our court systems,” says the Brennan Center’s Bannon. “When we’re not investing in our court and when we’re not investing in our public defender system, cases linger and justice isn’t being done.”
For years, state courts across America have been struggling to garner the financial support they need from state and local governments. But since the 2008 financial collapse, purse strings have tightened even more and that’s affected courthouses everywhere. A 2012 American Bar Association study determined some courts had suffered up to 65 percent cuts to their funding over five years. “We have a tragedy taking place in our courts,” Ted Olson, an attorney and board member for the National Center for State Courts, said last year.
His sentiments were echoed by David Boies, co-chairman of a commission formed by the American Bar Association to study court budget issues. He told The New York Times, “We are now at the point where funding failures are not merely causing inconvenience, annoyances and burdens; the current funding failures are resulting in the failure to deliver basic justice.”
Back in the Bronx the crisis is obvious. From the moment a police officer scrawls your name on a charge sheet, you enter a realm where the usual expectations of justice just don’t apply.
The Bronx Supreme Court operates like a Third World country, according to defense attorney Sam Braverman.
It is simply a different universe, where nothing moves quickly and everyone is apathetic because they’ve given up trying
- Sam Braverman
Basic procedures like transporting prisoners from the jail to the courthouse turn into uncertain expeditions.
“They’d come pick me up from the jail and take me to the courthouse,” Ralph Berry says. “Each time I’m thinking maybe I’m going home today, and each time some thing or another would happen and I’d be back in the jail.”
And why? The root of the problem goes back a decade. That’s when then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye, responding to a drop in felony cases and a surge in misdemeanor offenses, decided to merge the Bronx Criminal Court, which handled misdemeanors, with the criminal part of the Supreme Court that presided over felonies.
The merger was meant to speed up justice in the slowest of the city’s courts. But instead it’s had the opposite effect, swamping judges on big felony cases with additional hearings on misdemeanors. Between the cluttered calendars of judges and a shortage of court-appointed defense attorneys, scheduling a single pretrial hearing can take months.
Braverman compares the situation to the old metaphor of a frog that dies in boiling water because it doesn’t notice the temperature gradually increasing.
“Nobody noticed as we were going along,” he says.
Eighteen months went to 18.5, which went to 19 and it slowly crept up. And then all of a sudden we find ourselves saying, ‘Oh, son of a gun, we’re now at five years waiting for trials
Budget cuts have left staff working hours so short that hearings must adjourn by mid-afternoon. Defense lawyers also complain that the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson contributes with overambitious indictments, or with other cases so unclearly composed that clarifying the facts can take up weeks of a trial lawyer’s time.
Johnson wasn’t available for comment, but his executive assistant Robert Dreher laid blame solely on the lack of resources in the Bronx. “Prosecutors have no reason to delay a trial,” he told Fusion. “It’s just that when you don’t have enough resources to go around, the caseload builds.”
There’s no single reason why a trial wait time would exceed the state average. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors request delays. In Ralph Berry’s case, prosecutors were responsible for 15 of the 21 adjournments. In other cases, defense attorneys ask to delay proceedings for strategic reasons.
“Delays can mean that witnesses may die or disappear so that a case that might have been very strong after a few a months after a crime might no longer be viable at all after a few years,” says Bannon, of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Court delays are expensive. In 2012, the Independent Budget Office in New York estimated the annual cost of locking up pretrial detainees who couldn’t make bail was $125 million. Most of the city jails are detention centers for defendants waiting for trial with at least 39 percent of the 12,000 inmates there only because they couldn’t make bail.
For now, the state has eased the felony delays in the Bronx. With the help of an emergency “SWAT team” of judges, the median age of the felony caseload has gone down 36 percent since last year, from 371 days to 273 days. But the measures are stop-gap.
The overburdened county is bursting elsewhere: At the moment 2,106 people are waiting for their misdemeanor trials in the Bronx. A lot of them can’t make bail, so they’re in jail. That’s four times the number of cases in Manhattan, and five times as many as Brooklyn. The New York City Criminal Court Administrative Judge Barry Kamins has introduced measures to try and reduce that number, but only time will tell how effective they are in the long term.
“It’s just dysfunctional, like a pressure chamber,” says Braverman, “not by effort but because we simply don’t physically, economically have the resources we need to get by, so you fix one thing and you burst somewhere else.”
View Part Two of the series series.
Additional production and research by Rayner Ramirez, Cristina Costantini, William Gallego.
Berry Transcript (PDF)
Berry Transcript (Text)