Being arrested and charged with a crime can be terrifying – regardless of whether or not you are guilty. But what if you’ve been arrested and are in jail awaiting your trial when a global pandemic hits and the wheels of justice suddenly stop turning? Now you’re facing the possibility of a criminal conviction – and being infected with a potentially deadly virus for which there is no cure.
That’s what happened to defendants across the country when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States in March 2020. Criminal trials were halted while courts searched for ways to safely conduct hearings and try cases without spreading the virus. In some jurisdictions, this created a backlog of cases that may take months to eliminate.
Yes, there were early releases – but not for everyone.
As the COVID-19 virus spread rapidly among incarcerated populations, some people who had already been convicted and were close to completing sentences for non-violent crimes were released early. Likewise, some individuals who were awaiting trial on various charges were also released – albeit to home detention until their trial could be held. However, not everyone was so lucky.
As a recent article in the Washington Post highlights, defendants across the country saw their criminal trial dates pushed back as in-person court proceedings were largely suspended or delayed due to the public health emergency. Within a larger context, the article considers the plight of one man, Charles Ford, who is accused of stabbing a friend in a dispute over a female friend. Although Ford had already been in jail awaiting trial for nearly a year when the pandemic began, and despite his attorney’s April 2020 argument that “’it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when’ the virus gets into his jail,” the defendant was not released. The decision was based in part on Ford already being on probation for armed robbery and burglary.
But Ford’s lawyer’s argument about the coronavirus was accurate. As he continued to sit in a cell awaiting his jury trial, Ford contracted COVID-19. He was fortunate that it was a mild case, and even more fortunate that he was finally acquitted of a felony in a March 2020 trial (after his first trial was “cut short because two jurors had symptoms of COVID-19”). Instead, Ford was convicted of a misdemeanor which carried a six-month sentence. He had already served 22 months in jail.
As a criminal defense attorney in Annapolis for more than 20 years, I know all too well what a delay like this can mean for a person. Even without the threat of COVID-19, time spent sitting behind bars can be traumatic for anyone. Jail can be a dangerous place. Added to that, the longer an accused person waits to have their day in court, the more time they lose with family and loved ones, including missing important life events. They may lose jobs or even their home while awaiting trial. That’s why I do everything I can to help get my clients released as soon as legally possible.
Is a jury trial necessary if the defendant spends more time in jail awaiting trial than they would if convicted?
The Washington Post article raises the issue of whether or not a criminal jury trial is even necessary if the crime carries a maximum sentence that is for less time than the defendant has spent or will spend in jail awaiting trial. A conviction will go on the defendant’s record, of course, but there is a strong case to be made for not wasting the court’s time and resources simply to get that conviction on record.
As a defense attorney, it is my responsibility to act in the best interest of my client. That may mean pushing for a jury trial, or it may mean advising them to accept a plea deal for time already served. It could also mean fighting to have my client released without a conviction if they have already served more time than a conviction would carry. Ultimately, what matters most is achieving the best possible outcome for my client – regardless of what that means for the court’s time and resources.
How Covid-19 slowed down criminal jury trials in Maryland
As in most states, the Maryland court system was forced to react quickly when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived on its doorstep. Whereas some matters could be handled remotely, that was not the case for all court proceedings, including criminal jury trials. In an effort to protect employees, members of the public, and of course defendants, Maryland suspended some criminal jury trials. Criminal jury trials with trial dates scheduled for November 16, 2020 through April 23, 2021 – where the jury had not already been selected – were suspended and subject to rescheduling “as soon as feasible beginning April 26, 2021.”
Criminal jury trials where the jury had already been selected were permitted to continue.
What happens if I wait in jail longer than my sentence would be if convicted?
If you are found guilty when your case finally goes to trial, you may be credited with time already served and released from jail.
But the Constitution says I have the right to a speedy trial.
It sure does say that! According to the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial…”
However, the Constitution is a little vague on the definition of “speedy.” In Maryland, the law requires that a criminal case be brought to trial within 180 days of the appearance of counsel or the defendant’s appearance before the circuit court, whichever comes first.
My jury trial was delayed. What can I do?
If you are in jail awaiting a jury trial in Maryland that was delayed due to COVID-19 and the subsequent backlog of trials, an experienced criminal defense attorney in Annapolis may be able to help.
Depending on the specifics of your case and the type of crime you are accused of committing, your lawyer may be able to file a motion requesting your early release from jail pending trial. If the motion is denied, your attorney may be able to negotiate a plea bargain which could secure your release based on time already served. However, if these options fail, or if you prefer to go to trial, you will have to remain behind bars until your jury trial is scheduled.
And remember – Keep Calm, and Call Drew.