San Francisco’s Public Defenders Wrap 8 Weeks of Court Protests, Charging 1,100+ People Denied Right to Speedy Trial

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By The Vanguard

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Still charging the San Francisco County Superior Court of violating the right to speedy trial for more than 1,100 people, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Friday ended its eighth and final “Summer Sit-In demonstration to draw attention to San Francisco Superior Court’s severe trial backlog.”

The PD’s office maintains the “backlog is denying more than 1,100 individuals of their Constitutional right to a speedy trial, and 115 of these individuals have been languishing in San Francisco jail for months and even years past their trial deadlines, subject to near-lockdown conditions and no sunlight.”

At the weekly Friday protests in front of the courts, the PD has been urging the court to “use all available courtrooms for criminal jury trials or to dismiss overdue cases, as other counties have done. 

And, the public defenders said Friday, the court has started honoring speedy trial rights in felony case “for the first time since March 2020, while nearly 1,000 misdemeanor cases remain overdue.”

Staffers from the San Francisco Public Defender’s office and community allies said they have been “gathering in front of various city courthouses on eight consecutive Fridays to hold up large posters displaying the latest number of individuals deprived of their Constitutional trial rights and pass out factsheets to educate the public about the trial delays and ongoing litigation efforts.”

At the Hall of Justice protest Friday, the “demonstration addressed the continuing efforts to challenge the trial backlog, in particular the backlog of misdemeanor trials,” said the PD Office. Speakers included elected San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju, Deputy Public Defender Douglas Welch of the Felony Unit, Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson of the Misdemeanor Unit, and two community members who have participated in the weekly protests.

“Thanks to the work and pressure of so many people, the court has begun honoring the 60-day speedy trial deadlines in felony court. Even though some cases remain overdue, this is a huge step,” said Welch.

“Speedy trials have become an endangered species in San Francisco,” said Wilson, after noting “pre-pandemic, the court would hold up to 150 misdemeanor trials per year, but since misdemeanor trials resumed in 2021, the court is only averaging 15 misdemeanor trials per year.” 

“This situation is by no means over and our work is not done,” said Raju. “The bulk of cases that are delayed past their Constitutionally mandated deadlines are misdemeanors, and those cases are still getting unacceptably delayed. We’re going to continue to fight in the courtroom and in the public to end trial delays and we’re going to keep putting the pressure on because justice delayed is justice denied.”

In September 2021, Raju joined taxpayers and mothers of incarcerated individuals, and filed a civil lawsuit against SF Superior Court to “contest the court’s practice of continuing cases past their last day.”

And, In June 2023, a state appeals court ruled the lawsuit could proceed, and, according to the PD Office, “roundly criticized the SF Superior Court’s arguments that Raju did not have legal standing to sue, describing the court’s arguments as ‘specious’ and ‘plainly without merit’ and calling out their ‘outright misleading’ selective quotation of case law.  

The PD noted several examples of people whose lives were “upended” by the backlog, only to have charges dismissed or to be acquitted at trial, including:

  • “In June 2023, a jury acquitted Charles Underwood after only two hours of deliberation in a misdemeanor trial that was already four months overdue. Mr. Underwood is legally blind but was ordered to abide by a broad stay-away order from an area of town where he’s resided unhoused for three years. Upon an arrest for panhandling in the restricted zone in May, he asked to stay in jail in hopes that he’d get to trial faster so he would no longer be subjected to those unreasonable restrictions.”
  • “In November 2022, a judge dismissed charges against Sarina Borg, a mother who was accused of aiding and abetting a homicide in May 2020. Borg’s trial came two years past her Constitutionally-mandated deadline, and she was caged in the San Francisco Jail for 2.5 years total.”
  • “In January 2022, a jury acquitted former firefighter Stephen Kloster of felony assault charges after deliberating for a day and a half. Kloster, the primary caregiver for his 87-year-old mother who has schizophrenia, had spent 410 days in jail, including 274 days past his trial deadline.”

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