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New York Court of Appeals: Defendant Denied Right to Speedy Trial After 6-Year Delay

by Richard Resch

On May 24, 2008, Reginald Wiggins and codefendant Jamal Armstead were involved in an altercation in which a 15-year-old bystander was shot and killed. They were arrested and charged with various crimes, including murder. The prosecution spent two-and-a-half years attempting to get Armstead to testify against Wiggins, but he made it clear multiple times that he would never do so. After that proved unsuccessful, the prosecution spent the next three years trying to convict Armstead allegedly in an effort to leverage a conviction to get him to testify against Wiggins. In May 2013, prior to Armstead’s third trial, Wiggins filed a motion to dismiss charges against him on constitutional speedy trial grounds. His motion was denied.

He spent the entire six-plus years prior to trial incarcerated without bail. Finally, Wiggins pleaded guilty in exchange for a 12-year prison sentence. On appeal, the Appellate Division ruled that Wiggins’ constitutional right to a speedy trial was not violated. The New York Court of Appeals reversed.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by noting there is no “per se period beyond which a criminal prosecution may not be pursued.” Instead, the Court utilizes a five-factor test set forth in People v. Taranovich, 335 N.E.2d 303 (N.Y. 1975), when analyzing constitutional speedy trial claims: (1) the extent of the delay, (2) the reason for the delay, (3) the nature of the underlying charge, (4) whether there has been an extended period of pretrial incarceration, and (5) whether there is any indication the defense has been impaired by the delay. The New York test is similar, but not identical to, the test under the U.S. Constitution announced in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972). 

Regarding the first Taranovich factor, the Court stated that the length of the delay between the shooting in 2008 and the plea deal in 2014 was extraordinary. This fact alone is not determinative but demands “close scrutiny of the other factors,” since the State bears the burden of bringing a defendant to trial in a timely fashion, observed the Court.

The second factor requires an examination of the reason for the delay. In this case, the Court determined there were two causes, viz., adjournments consented to or requested by codefendant Armstead together with the State’s desire to obtain his cooperation in testifying against Wiggins. As to the first reason for the delay, the Court explained “each criminal defendant has an individual constitutional right to a speedy trial that cannot be rendered meaningless by the dilatory tactics of his or her codefendant.” With respect to the second reason, the Court instructed that the State does “not have unfettered discretion to indefinitely pursue evidence that would strengthen their case while the defendant’s trial is postponed.” In this case, the State pursued Armstead’s cooperation against Wiggins for over five years. The Court determined that this was “too long a period,” and thus the State failed to establish good cause for the extraordinary delay.

The third factor favored the State. The Court noted that the charges against Wiggins were serious, so the State can be expected to proceed with far more caution and deliberation than if the charges were relatively minor.

Wiggins was incarcerated for the entire pretrial period, so the fourth Taranovich factor was in his favor, according to the Court.

With respect to the fifth factor, the Court of Appeals explained that both it and the U.S. Supreme Court have “recognized that a demonstration of specific prejudice is not necessarily required.” The U.S Supreme Court stated in Baker that “impairment of one’s defense is the most difficult form of speedy trial prejudice to prove because time’s erosion of exculpatory evidence and testimony can rarely be shown.” When the delay is excessive, there is a presumption of prejudice. The Court of Appeals noted that when the delay is “great enough there need be neither proof nor fact of prejudice to the defendant.” Thus, the Court determined that Wiggins suffered presumptive prejudice.

After applying the Taranovich factors to the facts in this case, the Court concluded that Wiggins’ constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the order of the Appellate Division and dismissed the indictment. See: People v. Wiggins, 2018 N.Y. LEXIS 216 (2018). 

 

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