by Charles A. Monagan
Sep 19, 2011
02:00 PM
On Connecticut

Slow Justice


As the trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky consumes the headlines today—read all about it in exacting detail at the New Haven Register, among dozens of other places—I was reminded that it's been over four years since the actual crimes happened.

Four years. In a sense, the time has flown by, but I'm sure for Dr. William Petit, his family and friends, and those close to the  crime, it's been an eternity. It also seems to be an exceptionally long time, given the fact that both Komisarjevsky and his associate Steven Hayes (who found guilty last October for his role in the crime) were apprehended red-handed by police at the murder scene.

Two years ago—in the July 2009 issue of Connecticut Magazine—Richard Urban wrote an interesting story called "Justice Delayed" that examined why two years (at that point) had already passed without a trial in what seemed to be the most open-and-shut of cases. According to the story, the insistence by the prosecution of the death sentence is partially to blame, although there are other factors.

From the article:

Petit also knows that his wait for justice would be shortened if the death penalty were not at issue. But as he testified in March, he is unwilling to accept anything less. "Any penalty less than death for murder is unjust and trivializes the victim and the victim's family. It is immoral and unjust to all of us in our society," he said.

In the criminal-justice system the interests of those involved are often at odds, and not just in the sense that ours is an adversarial system. On the one hand, the people most affected, the victims or survivors, impatiently await justice. Yet their voices are rarely heard for years at a time as the system grinds along. "It's a concern," says Walkley, "but at the same time, particularly in capital cases, you're trying to take someone's life. The idea that death is involved makes the whole case different."

"Capital litigation is very inefficient," says Fernow. "How could you make the imposition of the death penalty more efficient and still be just? I don't think it can be. The tradeoffs are substantial. I know a lot of people lament the amount of time it takes to agree to execute someone, but there are an awful lot of good reasons why the process is so painstakingly slow."

Prime among them, of course, is that everyone wants to get it right the first time. It's even more frustrating for all involved if a mistake sends a case back for another trial.

In trying to get it right, the system has gone to extreme measures resulting in a lengthy series of legal procedures, set out in scores of federal and state rulings decisions, to ensure that the rights of the defendant are protected. While the trial judge sets the schedule, he is likely to grant both sides as much leeway as possible. "I think the judges are cognizant that this is a serious matter, and they want to give both sides the opportunity to make sure that they're ready to try the case," says Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly. "What the court does is prod it along. Most judges know in these high-profile cases that it's being watched, and I think they want to give the impression that they're not dragging their feet."

Even so, as the lawyers prepare a capital case judges must consider a host of factors, which taken as a whole draw out the process. There can be arguments about whether the evidence or statements from the accused were obtained legally, and thus whether they can be used at trial. Evidence collected and witness statements must be shared with the defense, but it takes time to process the evidence before it can be turned over. "As a prosecutor you have to present everything, but you have to tell the story," says Connelly. "Let's say you have forensic evidence. It takes a long time to prepare that. What kind of witnesses do you have? How many do you have? Are they from out of state? Do you have to go out and interview them and bring them in? Do you need to hire an expert witness or witnesses? So there are a lot of those things built into the time in preparing a case. To prepare any case for trial is time-consuming. It's a lot of work if you're going to do it right."

So although four years seems like an extended period for a case to get to trial, the idea is that now it is there, it will be adjudicated properly, and that justice will finally—and properly—be served.

Slow Justice

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