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Trial delays and your right to a speedy trial

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution says that you have a guaranteed right to a speedy trial -- yet, it can take months or years before you actually get a case to court (especially if the case is complicated).

What's the deal? Why does it often take so long to actually go to trial? There are a number of factors involved, but it basically comes down to this: The clock isn't always ticking on your case.

There's an imaginary timer going that keeps track of your trial's "speed," but that timer isn't always in action. There are a number of situations that take your case "off the clock," which can create significant delays. These include:

  • Motions from the defense or prosecution asking for more time to prepare a case
  • Scheduling conflicts, particularly when the defense attorney has another case at trial
  • Requests for a change of venue, which are usually made by the defense in order to get a fairer trial
  • Requests by the defense (or prosecution) to have more time to prepare a case
  • Requests to have forensic evidence re-tested or evaluated by an expert witness for the defense
  • Orders for psychiatric evaluations (which may come from the judge or be requested by the defense)
  • Psychiatric instability on the defendant's part -- because the defendant has to be able to participate in his or her own defense
  • Emergencies, which can include medical problems
  • Waiving your right to a speedy trial in order to let public interest die down (and, thus, reduce any pressure on a judge or jury that might sway a decision)

This is, quite frankly, only a partial list of the reasons that a trial might be delayed. Generally speaking, the more serious the charges, the longer and more convoluted the path from your initial arrest to your actual trial -- especially white collar crimes. For example, Kenneth Lay, one of the major figures in the Enron scandal, was indicted in July 2004 -- but jury selection in his trial didn't start until January 2006.

The delays that can come in a case are natural (and not necessarily a bad thing) -- which is why an experienced defense attorney will usually fight for a client's right to bail. That way, your life is less unpleasant while you wait, and you're better able to help plan your defense.

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