Justice delayed is just as wrong for a defendant

More than two years ago, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas appointed me to represent a 76-year old man that had been accused of molesting the 12-year old daughter (by a prior relationship) of his 32-year old wife.  The allegations were made suddenly, in June of 2012, with no prior mention of misconduct.  My client, William M., then spent 8 months in the substandard conditions of Philadelphia Prisons, until I obtained his release on House Arrest in March 2013.  House arrest confined my client to a tiny rented bedroom in the rough, Strawberry Mansion part of Philly, without the ability to shop, exercise, or look for the occasional odd job (my client is a skilled cabinet maker by trade, but would pick trash for money).  All requests to relax the boundaries of house arrest were denied, as if I was asking for a Caribbean vacation at state expense. I would occasionally visit him on my way home, he never fails to greet me with a cheerful, “Hello, Mr. Richard.”

Over the months that followed, I learned that William had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, and with Pyronie’s Disease (you don’t want to know what this does to the privates) in 2010.  In 2011, Willam had received high-dose radiation therapy that rendered him impotent, and otherwise unable to engage in the lurid sexual episodes that the minor witness had described to investigating police.

Trial had been scheduled to start this past Monday, September 15, and with expert testimony from William’s treating physician at the University of Pennsylvania that he could not have engaged in the acts alleged, we were reasonably confident of success.  I prepared for trial throughout the weekend of September 13-14.  What happened next was a prolonged waste of time.

Day 1: After waiting more than two hours, I argued in opposition to the Commonwealth’s request to call a physician to state that the complainant’s lack of physical injury upon examination was still consistent with the alleged assaults.  Aside from the low value of this expert opinion, I advised the Judge that my argument was not, “See, the complainant exam was inconclusive,” but rather “this old man’s illness made spontaneous sexual activity as described by complainant virtually impossible.”  The Court granted the Commonwealth’s motion, giving them a medical expert to even the score with mine, and told us to come back the next day.

Day 2: After waiting more than three hours, we were told that the presiding Judge could not hear our case, since the case before ours would be going to jury trial, and that of the nearly 100 judges of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, none could be found to hear our case with a jury.  My expert, who had cleared his schedule for months in order to testify on September 17, was frustrated by the inability to conclude this.  My client, deprived of the chance to clear his name and get out from under the weight of serious felony charges, was also disappointed.  For my part, going from preparing opening statements to being on indefinite hold was the opposite of what trial lawyers are supposed to do.

At the end, with neither the complaining witness nor her mother ever sighted, the Court at last granted my motion to terminate house arrest, as a result of which my client is finally a free man pending the new trial date.  We have no idea if the complainant and her mother, who now live about 5 1/2 hours from Philadelphia, will ever appear for trial.

So, in the end, what happened? An elderly man with no prior record was deprived of his liberty, first in jail and then on house arrest, from June 12, 2012 until September 16, 2014. A lawyer (that’s me) has devoted a huge amount of time to trial preparation, only to be told to come back in six months. And finally, the judicial system sends a message: It will not reward preparation, timeliness, zeal, or any other traits of a good defense lawyer.  The Judges are too busy with other cases.  What they are, or where they are being tried remains to be seen.  The Criminal Justice Center was virtually empty when William and I left there yesterday afternoon.

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