Judge Dal Williamson made some strong statements about the “popular topic” of recent felony dismissals due to defendants not being served in a timely manner by the Jones County Sheriff’s Department.
“This is not a new law,” he said sternly, referring to Barker vs. Wingo in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 and Smith vs. State in the state Supreme Court in 1989. Both are the case law he has cited 21 times this year while dismissing cases because accused felons’ Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated.
The judge didn’t identify the person he was sending that message to, but Sheriff Alex Hodge and several members of his department — a handful of whom were in the courtroom — have been on social media in recent days in an effort to defend themselves in the 21 dismissals.
“Let me clear this up,” he said, raising his voice. “None of the cases that have been dismissed …. involved cases in which the defendant went to another state. I want to clear that up. It’s not true.”
In fact, he recalled denying the motion to dismiss in a case where the defendant went to Georgia.
The latest hearing involves 46-year-old Jessie Mae Windham, who is accused of causing the death of a man in a drunk-driving crash in which he was one of her passengers.
She was served with her indictment three years and eight months after her arrest. Case law says that a delay of more than eight months is prejudicial for the defense.
“It was right at eight months before any attempt was even made to serve her,” Williamson said. “I don’t find two attempts to serve her in three years and eight months is a good reason for the delay. It seems obvious that a good bit of the time, Ms. Windham sits out on her porch. I don’t see why it’s so hard to serve her, and waiting seven months to even attempt is negligent.”
That delay is only one of four factors that’s considered in the case law, though. Windham did not file a motion for a speedy trial before being served and there was no “oppressive pretrial incarceration,” though she is in the Jones County Adult Detention Center now on a bench warrant.
The most serious factor is the delay, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, because it impairs the ability to present a defense and “skews the fairness of the entire system.”
In some of the 21 cases that have been dismissed this year, witnesses died, lawyers died, evidence was lost and there’s “faded memory” for the defendants and witnesses, Williamson said. In one case, there was a delay of 12 years between the time the grand jury indicted a defendant and when he was served with it, the judge said.
“The court has to conduct a balancing test of whether the right to speedy trial was violated,” he said.
The state Court of Appeals is examining the extent of the effect on the defendants’ cases, Williamson said, adding that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “the longer the delay, the greater the presumed prejudice.”