A few months ago, I wrote a column explaining what some of the more commonly used court terms that appear in the newspaper mean in layman’s terms, and I mentioned that I might write a second column on the subject.
While this column doesn’t involve court terms as such, it does address a commonly asked question by people, which is, why do court cases take so long to get resolved?
What got me thinking about this column is a message that I got from a lady a few weeks ago complaining about delays in the court case of a woman, and she wanted me to look into it noting that every time a court date was coming up, the defendant all of the sudden decided to go into rehab, delaying it.
When I called up the case on the public access terminal at the judicial center and looked at it, what I saw didn’t really surprise me. The woman got indicted last September, was arraigned in November, and had pre-trial conferences scheduled on Feb. 27, June 30 and Aug. 27 with another slated for Sept. 24.
While you might see a simple drug or theft case resolved in six months or something, this is a rarity. The reality is that it often takes nine to 18 months to resolve a felony court case once a person has been indicted, which leaves many victims and several defendants for that matter quite frustrated.
For the most serious cases, such as murder cases, especially those where the death penalty is an option, I have seen it take three plus years for these kind of cases to get resolved.
So why does it take so long? There is no one answer, and often it is a combination of things.
One of the most common reasons that cases are delayed is waiting on lab test results from the Kentucky State Police Crime Lab, which deals with cases from agencies in all 120 counties.
For instance, in drug cases, the drugs are typically sent for analysis, and in DUI cases, officials commonly have several months on blood toxicology results.
Some cases involve lab tests on blood found at a crime scene. There may be DNA testing, for instance, to match a blood sample to a defendant, who is charged with the crime.
Another reason for delays is that sometimes defendants change attorneys. Sometimes it is because they can’t get along with their first or second lawyer. Other times though it is beyond a defendant’s control.
For instance, Courtney Taylor, who is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for killing her husband and two teenage daughters, had multiple public defenders representing her throughout the course of her three year court case, with at least two to three of those lawyers retiring before her case was resolved.
While there are many fine attorneys, who work for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, the reality is most lawyers, who work as public defenders, don’t stay at that office for their entire career. Many times, these are younger lawyers with little experience, who will work as public defenders for a few years, and then move on to bigger and better things.
At any rate, when someone gets a new lawyer it takes the new attorney time to get up to speed on the case.
Just because you get a trial date doesn’t mean you will be tried on that date. Multiple court cases are typically assigned for trial on the same day. Part of the reason for this is that the vast majority of cases are plea bargained, and often with a trial pending this will cause more detailed discussions about plea agreements.
Trials will also frequently get delayed because a witness might not be available to testify, or an attorney in the case or a victim has a death in the family or some other emergency.
Another factor is that cases where a defendant is incarcerated prior to trial typically get priority when it comes time for trials over cases where a defendant is out of jail on bond. In addition, more serious cases typically get priority when it comes time for trial over less serious cases. For instance, a murder case would typically be given priority over the case of someone caught stealing the stereo out of your vehicle.
Don’t forget COVID-19 either.
While this doesn’t incorporate every reason why it takes so long to get court cases, particularly felony cases, resolved in the legal system, I hope it gives you an understanding about common reasons many cases take so long to get resolved.