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What Does the Right to a “Speedy Trial” Mean in Texas?

Every person charged with a crime in Texas has the right to a “speedy trial.” This right is guaranteed by both the United States and Texas constitutions. But there is no fixed definition of what constitutes a “speedy” trial. Indeed, in many cases it is in a defendant’s interests not to proceed too quickly to trial. Nevertheless, if you want a speedy trial and the prosecution’s actions unduly delay matters, you may be entitled to a dismissal of the charges against you on constitutional grounds.

Court Finds Defendant Largely Responsible for 41-Month Delay in Trial

At least that is the theory. In practice, Texas courts are reluctant to dismiss a criminal case for speedy trial violations. In a 1972 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court established four factors for determining whether a defendant has been deprived of his or her right to a speedy trial. These factors, which are also employed by Texas courts in state criminal cases, are as follows:

  1. The length of the delay between arrest and trial;
  2. The reason for the delay;
  3. Whether or not the defendant timely asserted the right to a speedy trial; and
  4. The prejudice to the defendant’s case arising from any delay.

The prosecution has the burden of justifying any delay, but the defendant must prove that he or she asserted the right and/or suffered prejudice. No one factor is dispositive. A court will instead “balance” the four factors on a case-by-case basis.

Here is a recent example from here in Houston. The defendant in this case was charged with manslaughter. There was already a delay in bringing this case to trial as the victim’s death occurred in 2002. The case remained “cold” until 2013, when police used DNA evidence to identify the defendant as a suspect.

The defendant was formally indicted by a grand jury in March 2013. Trial did not begin until August 2016, nearly three-and-a-half years later. The jury found the defendant guilty. On appeal, he argued the extraordinary delay in trying him constituted a violation of his right to a speedy trial.

The Texas First District Court of Appeals disagreed and affirmed the defendant’s conviction. While the court acknowledged the length of the delay–41 months–was sufficient to trigger a speedy trial review, none of the other three factors spelled out by the Supreme Court weighed in the defendant’s favor. To the contrary, the court said the defendant was largely responsible for the delays, as he repeatedly conflicted with his three separate court-appointed defense attorneys. These conflicts led to multiple resets of the trial date.

Regarding the third factor–the timely assertion of speedy trial rights–the appeals court noted the defendant waited until the trial began to actually get the court to hear his motion. Additionally, the fourth factor–establishing prejudice–also weighed against the defendant since he failed to show how the delay “impaired his defense.” Although the defendant said he had trouble remembering certain facts, the appeals court said “this was a cold case” to begin with, so there was no reason to believe that the “delay from arrest to trial played any additional role” in hampering the defense.

Get Help From a Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer

The truth is there is no hard-and-fast rule for deciding whether a speedy trial is in a criminal defendant’s best interests. This is why it is important to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney who can advise you on the best trial strategy for your case. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today at (281) 280-0100 if you have been charged with a crime in Houston, Galveston, or League City, and require immediate legal assistance.