By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – Last week a Contra County Superior Court judge summarily denied a writ of mandate filed by San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju among others seeking to enforce speedy trial provisions in the San Francisco court.
The suit, brought in September 2021, noted that by June of 2021 San Francisco Superior Court had “fully reopened without social distancing.” However, despite this, only seven courtrooms were open for criminal trials, representing fewer than 11 percent of the courtroom’s capacity.
In an update late on Monday, however, Mano Raju tweeted that the lawsuit filed alone with hearings held by Supervisor HIllary Ronen have had an impact “despite the recent appeals court ruling.”
“I’m pleased to share that all 11 courtrooms at the Hall of Justice are now open,”he said. “Finally, cases are now getting assigned to judges & sent out to courtrooms. However, judges must actually set trial deadlines to ensure trials take place. This remains a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of people caged for months to years waiting for due process.”
He added, “While we are encouraged by this initial movement in opening up the courts, we will continue to pursue every means, through this lawsuit and public pressure, to ensure that courts clear this backlog that they have created. ”
Between the COVID shutdown and the slow restart, at the time of their filing, “The backlog now stands at more than 450 criminal defendants awaiting trial, including more than 200 waiting in jail. The current conditions are antithetical to a functioning democratic society and the obligation of the state to provide basic access to justice.”
The petition notes PC section 1050, which provides that criminal cases “shall be set for trial . . . at the earliest possible time,” and “shall be given precedence over, and set for trial and heard without regard to the pendency of, any civil matters or proceedings.”
It commands “courts and judicial officers” to “expedite” criminal proceedings “to the greatest degree that is consistent with the ends of justice.”
The respondents countered, “To this day, the Superior Court also has needed to accommodate a dramatic increase in the number of criminal defendants who are unwilling to waive time and an equally striking decrease in the number of available jurors.”
Further they note that the court “has had to adjust, virtually daily to a wide variety of external influences – such as calendar conflicts, parties’ requests for continuances, absent defendants and, of course, COVID-related illnesses to judicial officers, court staff, Sheriff’s Department staff, witnesses, parties, attorneys, interpreters, and court reporters.”
They write, “The general COVID influences, as well as case-specific factors, provide a markedly different depiction than Petitioners allege of why there is a criminal trial backlog and what the Superior Court is doing to navigate the workload.”
They charge: “Resorting to general allegations, conjecture and hyperbole, which pervade the instant petition, must be rejected.”
In a statement last week by Mano Raju, he said, “We are disappointed in the ruling because this is a constitutional crisis that must be remedied to protect our clients’ rights and liberty. We are committed to doing everything we can for our clients, hundreds of whom who are being caged without trial far beyond their legal deadlines.”
Raju noted, for example, “we recently represented a member of our community who spent almost a year in jail — eight months past their trial deadline — only to be acquitted in less than an hour.”
In a press conference announcing the lawsuit last fall, Raju noted, “The court is supposed to enforce the law, not break it. Public Defenders will not stand by while members of our community are denied their right to a speedy trial, locked up for a year, while the Court takes care of non-urgent civil cases, including a trial to evict people out of their homes. We demand that the San Francisco Superior Court do its job, and not put poor, Black and Brown people last in line. The law applies to everyone, including the Court.”
They framed this as a human rights crisis.
To illustrate the problem, Mano Raju noted last September that someone they represent had a court hearing the week before, and he came to court thinking that that was the last day that he could be in a hearing before being sent out to a trial court.
“They put the case over,” Raju said. “They didn’t put it over a couple of days. They didn’t put the case over a couple of weeks. Put the case over to February of 2022, months past the last day. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Raju spoke of the case of Kalief Browder, the young man who was arrested and held at Riker’s Island in New York without trial from 2010 to 2013 for allegedly stealing a backpack.
“Eventually when he was sent out to a trial court, and only then, the district attorney dismissed the case because they didn’t have the evidence to prove the case,” Raju said. “As a result of being locked up for that long, however, young Kalief Browder was never the same. He ended up taking his life.
“He wasn’t killed on the streets, but he was murdered by the system,” he said. “We should never forget that lesson of life.”
Raju said he believes that they have the same story going on right now in San Francisco multiplied by over 100.
“We’re not going to stand by while members of our community, poor Black and brown brothers and sisters, are told to wait in the back of the line while the court takes care of civil matters,” he said, noting the anxiety and the impact that that incarceration has on their clients and the communities they represent.
Mano Raju also pointed out the disparate impact this has, as the population of San Francisco is 5.6 percent Black yet over half those in custody are Black.
“Our law guarantees Californians the right to a speedy trial within 60 days. It is a humanitarian crisis that we have over 100 people waiting in jail for months, some over a year, often in their cells for 23 hours a day; this kind of isolation and deprivation can cause irreversible long-term psychological damage to individuals and their families and their children,” he said. “It’s also a humanitarian crisis to have hundreds of others outside the jail, but still subject to the court’s orders while presumptively innocent.”
Public Defender Landon Davis called the situation “absolutely crazy.”
He pointed out, “We are in the most progressive city in the United States and we have our version of Guantanamo Bay right around the corner. This is absurd.
“You have people, our own brothers and sisters, citizens of this country who are presumed innocent, being held captive like dogs,” Davis said. “I hear all the cries and pain for my clients. And what they tell me is that this is torture.”
He said, “They are being held in a dirty smelly cell, 23 hours out of the day, no ventilation, no place to move, and if they’re lucky they get one hour out of that cell.”
He added, “(They) are not getting any counseling, no access to library books. They aren’t even allowed to go outside. They have to take Vitamin D pills because they’re getting no sunshine. This is modern-day torture.”
Raju said last week that they will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
“We have a petition for review on a related speedy trial issue currently in front of the California Supreme Court and are considering review here as well,” he said adding “In the meantime, we will never give up this fight until the fundamental right to a speedy trial is restored in San Francisco.”