MANHATTAN (CN) – Dismissing the indictment of a teen who pleaded guilty to killing a Sweet 16 partygoer, New York’s top court ruled 4-3 Thursday that the 5-year road to trial was excessive.
“The answer to the question ‘how long is too long?’ is a difficult one to resolve,” the 19-page majority opinion begins.
“However, certain basic principles must guide us. An accused’s right to be presumed innocent is protected by the right to prompt justice,” Judge Eugene Fahey continued. “Incarceration should generally follow conviction, not precede it. The failure of our criminal justice system to promptly resolve cases erodes faith in fundamental fairness.”
This commitment to due process ended Thursday in a reversal for 26-year-old Reginald Wiggins.
On May 24, 2008, Wiggins was just 16 when he was accused of opening fire after a Sweet 16 party, killing a 15-year-old bystander while confronting another guest about a rumored slight.
Ben Schatz, an attorney from the New York-based Center for Appellate Litigation, emphasized his client’s youth in celebrating the ruling.
“A 16-year-old kid was held at Rikers Island for six years without a trial,” Schatz said in a phone interview. “We’re glad the court saw this as a violation of Mr. Wiggins’ constitutional right to a speedy trial.”
Prosecutors initially delayed Wiggins’ trial waited more than 2.5 years in a fruitless attempt to have his co-defendant, Jamal Armstead, act as cooperating witness.
After three mistrials for Armstead, the first of which occurred after the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy, Wiggins pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Though a lower appeals court found 3-2 two years ago that Wiggins’ constitutional right to a speedy trial had not been violated, the New York Court Appeals found otherwise Thursday and reversed.
Judges Jenny Rivera, Leslie Stein and Rowan Wilson joined Fahey in the lead opinion.
“The delay was extraordinary, and although we assume that the people acted out of good faith belief that Armstead’s testimony would significantly enhance their case against defendant, their decision to pursue a strategy for Armstead’s cooperation that continued to be unsuccessful after five years cannot justify that extraordinary delay,” Fahey wrote. “Although the serious nature of the charges favors the people, the lengthy period of pretrial incarceration, as well as the presumptive prejudice to defendant that resulted from the lengthy delay and pretrial incarceration, favor defendant.”
Judge Janet DiFiore said in dissent that the government’s attempts to move the cases to trial, and the severity of the crime, excused the delays.
“As this was the senseless murder of a 15-year-old victim, the most serious of offenses, the fact that defendant failed to allege any prejudice militates against the dismissal of the indictment under all the particular circumstances,” DiFiore wrote, joined by Judges Michael Garcia and Paul Feinman.