Chapter & Verse: What Does “Speedy Trial” Mean Anyhow?

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As I strike out on this venture to read through the TCCP with all of you, my darling colleagues, I realize now, in this second humble installment, what a huge elephant I have promised to eat. For example, the next section I want to dive into is Art. 1.05. “Rights of the Accused.” Oh gosh. That’s a lot. Even in Texas, apparently, the accused have a lot of rights. Even the first sentence has a lot to unpack: “In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have a speedy public trial by an impartial jury.” We have to pick something to focus on here. I pick the speedy part.

Speedy trials have come to mean something entirely different in Texas than they did when they were first invented. Back in the Day (and by “day” I mean 1166 AD, specifically the Assize of Clarendon), trials had to be held within a few days of the person being arrested. To be totally fair, “trials” were also a bit easier to organize back then, requiring mostly a large vat of boiling water into which the hand of the accused person was plunged, then wrapped in bandages for an additional three days and then examined by a priest who determined if the hand was infected or not. If the wounds were infected, the person was guilty. This is about as fair a system as has ever been invented and, frankly, I’d probably take my chances with the vat of boiling water if I was ever given the option of that or to sit in the county jail for 20 months or so months awaiting trial, but I digress.

Texas actually used to have what most other states have, which is a speedy trial act that required the state to be ready for trial within a set amount of time after “the commencement of a criminal case.” In Texas, this meant that the state had 120 days to get ready for a felony, barring exceptional circumstances. In my humble experience in other jurisdictions with similarly strict day requirements, there are always exceptional circumstances. In Meshell v. State, 739 S.W.2d 246, the CCA declared that the Texas Speedy Trial Act violated the separation of powers doctrine, and that the legislature couldn’t tell the DA how long it would take to get ready for trial. That’s disappointing, especially for Meshell himself, whose lawyers didn’t argue that his case was a federal or state constitutional speedy trial violation. So, when the act was struck down, he hadn’t preserved any error for review and ended up with a conviction (lesson: OMG CONSTITUTIONALIZE YOUR OBJECTIONS).

So now where does that leave us? What do we get when we get a speedy trial? Answer: Not much. We get SCOTUS’s Barker v. Wingo factors for the court to consider once the delay gets long enough to qualify as “presumptively prejudicial” (the length of delay, reason for the delay, assertion of the right, and prejudice to the accused). How long is long enough to be considered “presumptively prejudicial?” Cantu v. State, 253 S.W. 3d 273, tells us that it’s more than four months but definitely 17 months. Everything else is up for interpretation.

So, much like life itself, we are challenged to sift through a morass of meaninglessness and come up with meaning for ourselves. I would contend that it is good practice in appropriate cases to: (1) Demand in writing a speedy trial at the beginning of a case; (2) refuse to agree to resets – make the state request it, write on the reset that you’re signing as to service only, not agreeing, etc; (3) flesh out your prejudice (yeah, it’s prejudicial if a material witness dies, but you can’t show what they would have testified to if you never interviewed them); and (4) move to dismiss for speedy trial violations.

TCDLA
TCDLA
Allison Mathis
Allison Mathis
Allison Mathis is a criminal defense attorney in the post-conviction writs division of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston, Texas. She has defended the public from the spurious claims of the government in various places, including Aztec, New Mexico, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in LaConner, Washington, and the Republic of Palau. She serves on TCDLA’s board of directors and is a founding member of her office’s extraordinary Knit Club. Before she was a lawyer, she was a superlative late-night diner waitress and an aspiring literary critic, but mostly she drank wine. You can reach her at .
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