SF Public Defenders and Community Hold Mock Trial to Indict the Court for Violating Speedy Trial Rights Amid Crippling Backlog

Public Defender Mano Raju Speaks At Mock Trial on Friday at SF Hall of Justice – Photo Courtesy Twitter

Public Defenders filed motions for release for a dozen clients languishing in jail & a batch of motions to dismiss cases beyond trial deadlines

Special to the Vanguard

San Francisco, CA – The San Francisco Court’s continued backlog of cases is violating the rights to a speedy trial for those languishing in jail.  On Friday, San Francisco Public Defenders, Supervisors Ronen and Preston, community leaders, and individuals impacted by trial delays and indefinite pre-trial detention held a mock trial on the steps of the Hall of Justice to indict the San Francisco Superior Court for violating speedy trial rights and failing to meaningfully address the alarming criminal trial backlog that has ballooned since the beginning of the pandemic.

Attorneys also filed habeas petitions challenging the harsh conditions of confinement in county jail on behalf of a dozen of the more than 150 individuals who are still in jail beyond their statutory trial deadline; and filed motions to dismiss several cases beyond deadline.

Despite over 550 cases delayed past their trial deadline, and the court’s claim that it has fully reopened, 40% of the allotted trial courtrooms at the Hall of Justice sat empty as the community gathered to testify to the harm caused by these delays.

“San Francisco shamefully stands alone in violating constitutional speedy trial rights. Other counties all over the state have opened their courtrooms and available spaces to ensure residents, whose freedom is at stake, are given their day in court,” said Mano Raju, who joined a group of taxpayers to sue SF Superior Court one year ago in September 2021, part of which is under review in the California Court of Appeal.

He added, “There’s no excuse for this court to fail its residents so badly and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in our jails, when we know that trials can be held safely. If you add up all the extra days that our clients who are currently in jail have been held past their deadline for trial, it comes to 15,333 days—that’s 42 years of wrongful incarceration.”

Many of the people in custody in San Francisco County Jails are subjected to 23-hour-a-day lockdown conditions, have had no exposure to sunlight, no in-person family visits, and almost nonexistent opportunities to attend programs. The habeas petitions filed today aim to free several people who have been detained pre-trial under these harsh conditions.

Community members who have been directly impacted by these delays spoke at the rally about the mental and physical harms and traumas associated with family separation.

“I haven’t hugged my daughter in two long years because the San Francisco Court has repeatedly delayed her trial. My daughter is currently in jail waiting for her day in court, and each day she is separated from me and her children, my grandchildren, is excruciating,” said Mayra Borg, whose daughter is represented by the Public Defender’s Office.

Stephen Kloster—a public defender client who spent 410 days in jail, unable to care for his 87-year-old mother, and who was eventually acquitted of all felony charges—contributed a statement that was read in his absence: “As an immunocompromised person, I lived in fear that I would get seriously sick or die while I was in jail. It’s ironic that the stated reason for trial delays is COVID-19 because the people in San Francisco’s jails waiting for their day in court are the most vulnerable to the spread of serious illnesses like COVID-19. It feels like the Court isn’t taking its responsibility to hold trials seriously, and they’re playing games with our lives.”

Stephanie Irving spoke about her 60-year-old partner, a public defender client, who has been in jail for five months where he caught COVID. “When he called me and he was coughing so much, I had to hang up the phone because it was too painful. I was scared he was going to die in there. This time was supposed to be our time to be together. He should be with me, not still be in that place.” Her partner’s trial deadline passed in August, and they have been told it may be months before he actually goes to trial.

Robert Brewer, another public defender client, said, “I was in jail for 288 days, the entire time during COVID. When I finally went to trial after over nine months, it lasted 5-7 days, but the jury only took 90 minutes of deliberation to come out with the unanimous decision of not guilty.”

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, but the San Francisco Superior Court has been relying on the circumstances of the pandemic as an excuse to delay trials, sometimes for months past their statutory deadline.

California state law requires that courts prioritize criminal trials, yet San Francisco continues to hold civil trials and has not made use of all available courtrooms nor sought alternative venues to accommodate the need.

A number of other counties—such as Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Marin—have made such accommodations and cut their trial backlog significantly while San Francisco’s backlog continues to expand. While there are over 550 cases that are currently beyond deadline in San Francisco, there are hundreds more in line behind them.

“The community has spoken, and we call on the San Francisco Superior Court to act with urgency, to follow its legal and ethical obligations to set and hold trials in all available venues, and to stop detaining people indefinitely while their lives, health, and families suffer,” said Mano Raju.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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