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Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices overturn rape case decision

| Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 8:15 p.m.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday reinstated rape charges against a Wilkinsburg man whose case a judge tossed out almost three years ago because prosecutors left him waiting in jail too long before trial.

In a 5-1 decision, the justices overturned rulings by an Allegheny County judge and Superior Court that freed David Bradford, 32, whom police in September 2008 charged with kidnapping and raping a woman as she waited for a friend in front of a Wilkinsburg apartment building.

Common Pleas Judge Randal B. Todd dismissed the charges in November 2009 after ruling the district attorney's office failed to bring the case to trial within the required 365 days while Bradford was jailed. Todd could not be reached for comment on the ruling.

Bradford's attorney, Kevin Abramovitz, said the decision left him "speechless." His client has been living and working in Allegheny County since his release and has had no run-ins with police, Abramovitz said. He and other officials would not say where Bradford lives.

"The decision now allows the District Attorney's Office to delegate their own responsibility, and then if something goes wrong along the way, they can throw their hands up in the air and say it's not their fault, and the Supreme Court will now bail them out," Abramovitz said.

The justices sided with District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office in attributing the error to "judicial delay beyond the commonwealth's control."

Zappala spokesman Mike Manko declined to comment. Deputy District Attorney Janet Necessary filed a request to jail Bradford while he awaits trial on five charges. A hearing is scheduled for Friday in Common Pleas Court.

State rules based on the constitutional right to a speedy trial set time limits between arrest and trial that vary, depending on whether a defendant is in jail or free on bond. The clock on those limits can stop, allowing for longer waits, when lawyers request and a judge approves.

The Supreme Court's decision surprised Bruce Antkowiak, head of the criminology and law program at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, because in many instances courts have ruled that prosecutors carry the burden for bringing speedy trials.

"The rules always seem to make the DA manager of that docket," Antkowiak said. "If that's not the case anymore, it seems to leave open the possibility of (issues) in other cases."

Bradford remained jailed for a year with no action on his case after a district judge in October 2008 ordered him to stand trial. Prosecutors said paperwork from the Wilkinsburg district judge's office never made it to the courthouse to trigger a case tracking system in Zappala's office.

Todd and the Superior Court panel -- which included Judge Robert Colville, a former district attorney -- ruled that system is not good enough. They noted that an assistant district attorney attended Bradford's preliminary hearing and should have notified the office that the case would come up.

The Supreme Court's 20-page opinion determined that prosecutors exercised due diligence in their system to bring defendants to trial. Justice Max Baer, writing for the majority, said it was reasonable for Zappala's office to rely on a district judge in this case.

The dissenter, Justice Thomas Saylor, said Zappala's office failed to monitor its own prosecution and that failure "removes an important safeguard against impairment of constitutional interests via unnecessary delay."

"Constitutional rights are not technicalities," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. "They are there to protect people."

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