The Speedy Trial Act May Result In Dismissal Of Charges In Cold Cases

Murder is one of the few crimes that doesn't have a statute of limitations, so it's possible to face charges for it decades after the incident occurred. In fact, it's not unusual to hear reports of people being tried for murders that happened 30, 40, or 50 years ago. However, even though the charges aren't subjected to a statute of limitations, people in this situation may be able to have their cases dismissed based on violations of the Speedy Trial Act. The following article will explain the circumstances in which a case might be thrown out for this type of violation. 

About the Speedy Trial Act

Enacted in 1974, the Speedy Trial Act sets time constraints on when the prosecution must present its case in court. For example, federal prosecutors must begin their trials no more than 70 days after indictments against the defendants were filed. The act helps protect defendants' Sixth Amendment right to quick trials. Any violation of this right can cause the charges to be dismissed or a conviction to be overturned.

The Speedy Trial Act vs. Cold Cases

Cases go cold for a variety of reasons. The police may not have any viable suspects, or there simply isn't enough evidence to prove a suspect committed the crime. Many times, though, a case will go cold because the authorities are unable to locate the person of interest, usually because the person has fled the area.

When the person is eventually located, the trial against him or her will generally commence regardless of the amount of time that's passed since the crime occurred. However, in some situations, the charges against the person will be thrown out because the time period between the indictment and the actual trial was too long and constitutes a Speedy Trial violation.

For example, charges against a 76-year-old Georgia woman were dropped for a murder that occurred over 41 years ago. The woman was indicted in 1970 for killing her husband, but she wasn't actually arrested for the crime until October 2011. Though she had left Houston, Texas–where the crime was committed–and moved to Georgia, she had been living openly under her own name the entire time. The judge dismissed the case on the basis of a Speedy Trial violation because it appeared there were no documented attempts to actually bring the woman in for trial.

Not all missing fugitives in old cold cases will get the same treatment. To be eligible for this type of dismissal, at least two factors must be true:

  • There must be an indictment or arrest warrant filed. The clock for a Speedy Trial doesn't actually start until the person has been charged. So if there is no charge, then can't be a violation. Additionally, prosecutors are sometimes able to restart the clock by dropping and re-filing charges, though this depends on the state and the circumstances of the case.
  • The defendant must have been living in plain sight the entire time. If the individual flees the country, changes his or her name or appearance, or does other things that make it obvious the person is trying to hide, then the prosecution could invalidate the Speedy Trial violation claim by showing the person did these things to evade capture.
  • The time period must be unreasonable. Not all courts have specific time tables for when cases must proceed. However, if the time between the indictment and the actual trial extends beyond what could be considered reasonable, then the court may dismiss the charges.

While most people would like to have a cold case closed in a satisfactory way, it's important to ensure the accused persons' rights are always protected. If you find you're being taken to court for a crime that was committed a long time ago, it's essential you hire a criminal attorney who can help you mount an effective defense against the charges.

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