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Victims devastated when delays lead to dismissed charges

| Monday, Jan. 17, 2011

Giante Lee Thomas slipped through a crack in the criminal justice system.

In November, an Allegheny County judge dismissed charges that the Braddock man burned his 3-year-old daughter with hot water in 2007. Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning ruled prosecutors waited too long to bring Thomas to trial, violating his right to a speedy trial on state charges while Thomas sat in federal prison on drug charges.

"(Thomas) doesn't have to say, 'Hey, come try me.' It's the District Attorney's Office responsibility to go get him," Manning said when ruling against prosecutors who wanted to initiate court proceedings in May after Thomas complained.

Such dismissals happen in less than 1 percent of criminal cases filed annually in Western Pennsylvania. But a dismissal without a court hearing -- especially in a high-profile case such as a rape suspect from Wilkinsburg freed after a year in jail with no action -- can leave victims upset and wanting to know why.

"Their first reaction is devastation. They don't have their day in court, and essentially they're re-victimized," said Mary Jo Harwood, associate director of the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime. "It's like telling them it never happened. They never see the person held accountable for the pain that person has inflicted in their life."

Court records show Allegheny County judges dismissed seven cases last year -- 0.02 percent of about 35,000 cases filed -- because prosecutors failed to bring them to trial in the allotted time. From 2007 to 2009, Allegheny County judges tossed out 41 of 106,810 cases for speedy-trial violations, or 0.038 percent of all criminal cases.

All six surrounding counties had at least one speedy-trial dismissal in the past four years. In Armstrong County, judges tossed out three of 3,854 cases, or 0.078 percent, the highest percentage of counties the Tribune-Review examined.

"Usually it results from some glitch in the system," Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said. Judges there dismissed four of 19,380 cases for speedy-trial violations, a rate of 0.02 percent from 2007 to '09.

"Maybe a case was held for court at a magistrate's office, but (the file) wasn't sent or the guy wasn't found."

Not 'a perfect system'

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a speedy trial. The state Supreme Court shaped that into what's known as Rule 600, which says defendants cannot remain in jail longer than 180 days without a trial. If a judge grants a defendant bail, prosecutors have 365 days to try the case. The "clock" stops and starts for certain court postponements that lawyers and judges agree upon.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. acknowledged his office is responsible for bringing cases to court on time, and he said he tries to ensure cases don't fall through. He pointed to the low percentage of dismissals as proof.

"You will have cases that are missed because there's a human element in the system. There's 119 police agencies, 50 magistrates' offices and individual county offices that touch the case," Zappala said. "All cases are important, but we don't have a perfect system."

Zappala said his office received $250,000 from the state and county for a computer system to track case time limits and review cases. He hopes to buy the technology this year.

He recently ordered police departments to get his office's approval in filing sex crime cases, as they must for homicides, in part to make sure prosecutors are aware of new cases.

"If you file a criminal complaint and can't find the guy, the clock runs against the commonwealth, so there's an obligation on the police agency to do a diligent search," Zappala said. "We've also conducted training on that with police departments, to address situations where a case sits at the magistrate's office without the guy being found."

Zappala ordered assistant district attorneys to keep computerized notes of cases they handle at preliminary hearings.

"When you have thousands of cases going through Allegheny County in a year, it's almost like if you had a perfect record under Rule 600 that would be remarkable," Duquesne University law professor Bruce Antkowiak said. "Every district attorney is shooting for that, and should; but realistically, if it's achieved, that would be a remarkable accomplishment."

Antkowiak said better technology could help, but "someone has to input the data and someone has to check it on the other end."

Bradford case

Zappala put in place many of the precautions after the December 2009 dismissal of the David Bradford case. Police accused Bradford, 31, of kidnapping and raping a woman in September 2008 as she waited for a friend in front of a Wilkinsburg apartment building.

Bradford remained jailed for a year without court action after a district judge in October 2008 ordered a trial. Common Pleas Judge Randal Todd dismissed the charges and freed Bradford, saying Zappala's office violated speedy-trial rules.

Prosecutors argued they rely on the court system and that a paperwork glitch caused Bradford's case papers to never make it from the office of Wilkinsburg District Judge Kim Hoots to the County Courthouse, Downtown.

An appeals court upheld Todd's ruling in a 2-1 decision last year. Judge Robert Colville, a former police chief who was Zappala's predecessor as district attorney, wrote: "We realize that, because Bradford was accused of sex crimes, some members of the public may react emotionally, believing there should be some device to ensure he is prosecuted even if the law must be overlooked or manipulated to reach that end. However, this court cannot ignore a lack of due diligence in order to facilitate a prosecution."

The state Supreme Court ruled last week it will hear an appeal of the case. If the justices side with Zappala, the ramifications could impact speedy-trial issues across the state.

"Rule 600 is a constitutional right as fundamental as freedom of the press. A speedy trial is fundamental to our democracy," said Matthew Debbis, Bradford's attorney. "To call it a glitch or a technicality is really appalling.

"In Bradford's situation, they said they acted with 'due diligence.' But they have to keep a tracking system on their cases. They didn't do anything."

No shows in court

Darnell Tyler could be the next test case.

Manning scheduled a hearing Wednesday in the case after attorney Kevin Abramovitz asked him to dismiss Tyler's drug charges for Rule 600 violations. Tyler, 31, of the North Side, also was charged in a federal case and jailed Jan. 11, 2010, but prosecutors have not acted on his state case, a court filing says.

Records show many Rule 600 cases result from cases involving victimless crimes such as drunken driving or drug charges.

Victims are a second check on the system, Antkowiak said, because they call to ask what's happening with their cases.

Other times defendants don't show for court -- because they don't receive paperwork, police can't find them or they are incarcerated outside the county, records show.

In one case involving a 2005 Mt. Lebanon burglary, a judge dismissed charges against suspect Robert George, who was incarcerated in West Virginia.

George, 40, was accused of stealing $600,000 worth of paintings, jewelry, electronics, handbags and rugs from a home along Castle Shannon Boulevard. Police recorded him talking about the burglary, but in 2007 Judge John Zottola dismissed the case for speedy-trial violations.

"We don't slander the system because we work with the system, but nothing really replaces a victim's day in court," said Harwood, with the victims center.

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