By Kacie Williams
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – At a Hall of Justice courthouse protest last month, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and community members, with Board of Supervisors members Hillary Ronan and Dean Preston, held a mock trial to protest against San Francisco Superior Court’s failure to recognize speedy trial rights.
Family members of victims, who are having their rights violated through trial delays and indefinite pre-trial detention, came to speak on behalf of their loved ones.
Through this mock trial, participants hoped to highlight the alarming amount of criminal trial backlog that has accumulated throughout the pandemic.
The PD’s Office also filed habeas petitions to challenge the harsh conditions of confinement in county jails on behalf of a dozen of more than 150 individuals who are being forced to remain in jail beyond their statutory trial deadlines.
Motions were also filed to attempt to dismiss several cases that are beyond their deadlines.
While the court claims it is fully reopened, there are still 550 cases that are delayed past their trial deadlines, charges the SFPD’s Office, and forty percent of the courtrooms in the Hall of Justice remain empty.
“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, San Francisco Public Defender.
Raju charged there is no excuse for the courts to fail its residents so badly and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis taking place within the jails.
If all of the extra days that clients have been held in jail were added up, it would total 15,333 days or 42 years, the PD’s Office said.
And, the public defenders add, many of the people who are held in custody in SF county jails are being subjected to 23-hour-a-day lockdowns, no sunlight exposure and no in-person family visitation.
The SFPD hopes its habeas petition will free people who have been detained pretrial under these harsh conditions.
Many community members who have been impacted by these delays from the courts spoke at the rally to bring light to the harsh conditions their loved ones have been subjected to inside.
Stephen Kloster was a public defender client who spent 410 days in jail while his 87-year-old mother was at home. He was her main caretaker. He was eventually acquitted of all of his felony charges, said his lawyer.
Kloster was also an immuno-compromised person who was worried that he would die in jail due to sickness. He said, “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, another public defender client. He had been in jail for five months where he did catch COVID.
Irving said, “When he called me and he was coughing so much, I had to hang up the phone because it was too painful…” His trial deadline passed in August but there is still no definitive trial date.
And Robert Brewer, another public defender client, spoke to his being in jail for 288 days; all during COVID. After waiting nine months to go to trial, which lasted about a week, the jury only took 90 minutes to deliberate and unanimously decide that he was not guilty.
The SFPD’s Office notes that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial. San Francisco’s Superior Court has been using the pandemic as an excuse to delay trials.
The PD added that, although California state law requires that criminal trials are prioritized, San Francisco continues to hold civil trials while criminal courtrooms remain empty.
Other counties such as Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Marin have made the necessary accommodations to cut their trial backlog, claims the SFPD’s Office, noting there are 550 cases beyond their deadline, and hundreds more to follow.
“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 Raju.