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December 23, 2013

Speedy Trial: A Guaranteed Right Or An "Either/Or" Choice?

On December 5, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) heard oral arguments in Commonwealth v. Taylor, a criminal case that seeks a balance between a defendant's right to a speedy trial and his right to receive "automatic discovery" from the prosecution.

In addition to a criminal defendant's right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 36 provides that a criminal defendant must be brought to trial within twelve months of the date of his arraignment. Under the rule, some specific periods are excludable from the total calculation of the twelve months. If this right is violated, then the defendant is entitled to a dismissal of the criminal charges against him in the case.

The Massachusetts rules also require that the prosecution automatically turn over to defense counsel certain items and information that are relevant and material to the prosecution's case or to the defendant's potential defenses. Such information and items include witness statements, statements by the defendant, and other evidence collected by the prosecution in connection with the charges against the defendant.

In Taylor, the defendant was arraigned on murder charges in Suffolk Superior Court in August 2006. By the fall of 2006, the prosecution still had not turned over critical evidence that fell within the mandatory automatic discovery provisions of the Massachusetts rules. That evidence included a recording of the police interrogation of the defendant and statements by a chief witness (who the defendant claimed was actually responsible for the alleged murder), as well as seventeen audio recordings of police interviews conducted in May 2006 and the audio and transcripts of eleven witnesses who testified before a grand jury. Although the court ordered the prosecutor to produce the missing automatic discovery items, the prosecutor did not timely do so, and requested additional time. Defense counsel made clear to the prosecution and the court that, notwithstanding the prosecution's request for more time to comply with its mandatory discovery obligations, the defendant was not waiving his right to a speedy trial. The court granted the prosecution additional time, but noted that "Rule 36 will not be waived from this date until the time of compliance."

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