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COMMENTARY: In an opinion piece about WNBA star Brittney Griner’s prison sentence in Russia titled “US can stand to learn from Griner’s swift punishment,” writer Don Kahle commented about how criminal and civil trials in the United States can take years. What Kahle failed to do is write about why the justice system works as slowly as it does or address the fact that wrongful convictions still happen even in the slow-moving system. 

Brittney Griner was charged, convicted, and sentenced to over nine years at a Russian penal colony in under six months | image by Lorie Shaull (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why do criminal cases take so long?

In Pennsylvania, after a person is arrested or charged with a crime, the next step is a preliminary hearing. After the preliminary hearing is a formal arraignment where the defendant is given notice of the charges that they will face at trial. After the formal arraignment is the pre-trial conference where the district attorney’s office confers with defense counsel and the court to figure out whether the case is going to be listed for a trial or a plea. After all that, the case is finally ready to move forward. 

What causes the delays?

Trial delays generally come down to discovery problems, scheduling problems, and witness availability problems.

Discovery problems

Discovery is the legal term for the evidence in the case. In Pennsylvania, the district attorney isn’t required to turn over all of the evidence they receive. They also don’t have to turn over evidence that they don’t have. In most counties, the district attorney’s office doesn’t turn over discovery until the formal arraignment or pre-trial conference. Even then, diligent attorneys will do independent investigations to find more evidence and to go through the evidence they received from the state.

Scheduling problems

Scheduling conflicts that didn’t necessarily exist when the DA and defense attorney set a date for trial will sometimes pop up. There are also times that the other cases in a particular courtroom run longer than planned. And then there can be a global pandemic that shuts the court down. Things happen.

Witness availability problems

The problem with witness availability is a separate problem from scheduling conflicts. You can have a case where everyone is ready to go but a material witness didn’t come to court that day. Or you may have a witness who changed their mind about appearing for court and needs an official invitation from the court in the form of a material witness warrant. Or one of the witnesses may be residing in a different county’s jail and the prison transport didn’t bring them.

What, if anything, can be done to make cases go to trial faster?

Courts are chronically underfunded and don’t have the personnel to handle the volume of cases that come in every year. Anything that would shorten the amount of time a defendant has to process the discovery and do their own investigations would increase the number of wrongful convictions. Open discovery may make it easier for defendants to prepare their case faster, but there’s also the possibility that prosecutors would do “document dumps” and provide relevant evidence along with less relevant information to essentially hide the ball.