Delayed Murder Trial Dodges High Court Lens

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court reneged Monday on its plans to review a murder case where the state did fund the indigent defendant’s counsel for five years.
     Jonathan Boyer was convicted of second-degree murder and armed robbery with the use of a firearm after a week long trial in 2009, seven years after had he initially been indicted for first-degree murder, which would have carried the death penalty. During the first five years, the defense sought and received at least eight delays of a hearing to determine which branch of the state government would pay their fees.
     Louisiana finally put the case on track in 2007 by reducing the charges and therefore the expected defense costs.
     The evidence showed that Boyer had tried to rob a trucker named Bradlee Marsh who offered him and his brother a ride as they walked along a roadway in Sulphur, La. After Marsh refused to give Boyer money, Boyer shot Marsh three times in the head, and stole his money and a silver chain. Marsh died from his injuries, and police apprehended Boyer a month later in Jacksonville, Fla.
     Boyer is serving life without the possibility of parole.
     The Louisiana Court of Appeal’s Third Circuit affirmed the convictions in February 2011, rejecting Boyer’s speedy trial arguments as “more perfunctory than aggressive.”
     “Defendant alleges that the seven-year pretrial incarceration severely prejudiced his case in that he lost his job, suffered a mental breakdown, became psychotic, and was unable to assist with his defense,” the decision stated. “Moreover, witnesses died or disappeared.”
     Though the court agreed that it was “presumptively prejudicial” that Boyer spent over seven years between his arrest and conviction behind bars, it said Louisiana’s “funding crisis” excused the delay.
     “While the incident before the trial court was a very serious offense, it was not overly complicated,” the court found. “Defendant confessed to the crime. His brother, who was at the scene, testified that defendant killed the victim. But for the procedural problem, lack of funding for a capital case, the case would have progressed in a timely manner.”
     The U.S. Supreme Court granted Boyer a writ of certiorari in October 2012, but it dismissed that writ as improvidently granted on Monday.
     Writing in dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court should have found that “a delay caused by a state’s failure to fund counsel for an indigent’s de­fense should be weighed against the state.”
     “It is important for states to understand that they have an obligation to protect a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial,” Sotomayor added.
     She was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
     “Where a state has failed to provide fund­ing for the defense and that lack of funding causes a delay, the defendant cannot reasonably be faulted,” Sotomayor wrote. “Placing the consequences of such a delay squarely on the state’s shoulders is proper for the simple reason that an indigent defendant has no control over whether a state has set aside funds to pay his lawyer or fund any necessary investigation. The failure to fund an indigent’s defense is not as serious as a deliberate effort by a state to cause delay. But states routinely make tradeoffs in the allocation of limited resources, and it is reasonable that a state bear the consequences of these choices.”
     Those who concurred in the dismissal said that the case had been taken up on “the basis of a mistaken factual premise.”
     “We have before us the same record that was before the Court of Appeals, and the record simply does not support the proposition that much – let alone ‘most’ – of the delay was caused by the state’s failure to fund the defense,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote.
     Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia joined Alito.
     They noted that the premise in question was “that a breakdown in Louisiana’s system for paying the attorneys representing petitioner, an indigent defendant who was charged with a capital offense, caused most of the lengthy delay between his arrest and trial.”
     In reality, however, defense requests for continuances accounted for the “the single largest share of the delay in this case,” according to the ruling.
     “It is also quite clear that the delay caused by the defense likely worked in petitioner’s favor,” Alito wrote. “The state court observed that petitioner’s assertions of his speedy trial right were ‘more perfunctory than aggressive.’ And what started out as a very strong case of first-degree murder ended up, after much delay, in a conviction for lesser offenses.”
     Alito also noted that Hurricane Rita had caused the closure of the courthouse on the eve of a critical hearing.
     Sotomayor said that the lower court rejected Louisiana’s argument that “the delay was mostly attributable to Boyer, because he failed to move the case forward.”
     “It is a mistake to second-guess the state court’s findings on this point, particularly because Louisiana conceded below that most of the delay resulted from the lack of funding for Boyer’s defense,” Sotomayor added. “Contrary to the concurrence’s assertion, this concession was not made arguendo. The most reasonable reading of the state court’s opinion is that it simply ac­cepted Louisiana’s concession when it found that the ‘majority of the seven-year delay was caused by the “lack of funding.”‘ There is no reason this court should comb through the record to allow Louisiana to turn its back on this prior position, and risk substitut­ing this court’s judgment for that of a state court on a question that is closely intertwined with state procedural rules. These matters of state law are better suited for the Louisiana court to address in the first instance on remand.”
     Sotomayor also noted that Boyer’s case appears “illustrative of larger, systemic problems in Louisiana.”
     “The Louisiana Supreme Court has suggested on multi­ple occasions that the state’s failure to provide funding for indigent defense contributes to extended pretrial deten­tions,” the dissent states. “There is also empirical evidence support­ing that assessment. In New Orleans Parish, for example, a recent study found that more than 22 percent of pending criminal cases were more than one year old. Another study found that the average time between felony arrest and trial in Calcasieu Parish, the jurisdiction where Boyer was tried, was 501 days in the years before Boyer’s arrest. More broadly, the public defender system seems to be significantly understaffed.”
     One report found that public defenders in New Orleans “handle approximately 277 felonies per year, which is nearly twice the number recommended by ABA standards,” according to the ruling.
     “Against this backdrop, the court’s silence in this case is particularly unfortunate,” Sotomayor wrote. “Conditions of this kind cannot persist without endangering constitutional rights.”
     Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy did not join either opinion.

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