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State of Vermont v. John Turner

April 12, 2013


On Appeal from Superior Court, Essex Unit, Criminal Division October Term, 2012 M. Kathleen Manley, J. (motion to dismiss); Walter M. Morris, Jr. (final judgment)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skoglund, J.

State v. Turner (2011-140)

2013 VT 26

Supreme Court

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Burgess and Robinson, JJ.

¶ 1. On September 3, 2008, defendant John Turner was arraigned on one count of lewd or lascivious conduct with a child and one count of unlawful restraint of a victim less than sixteen years of age. His first trial occurred in March 2010, and resulted in a hung jury. His second trial occurred in July 2010, and he was convicted of unlawful restraint and acquitted of lewd or lascivious conduct. He now appeals, claiming his conviction must be reversed because he was denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial. We affirm the conviction.

¶ 2. Upon his arrest and arraignment in 2008, the court assigned public defender services and appointed Attorney Douglas Willey. Defendant notified Attorney Willey that he wanted to have a speedy trial. An investigator from Attorney Willey's office informed defendant of the need for discovery, depositions, motions and other matters necessary to prepare for trial. Defendant was advised it was premature to file a motion for speedy trial at that point. In November 2008, following a status conference, a discovery stipulation was filed with the court, indicating that the parties would be trial ready by June 1, 2009. Depositions were taken and transcripts ordered. In June 2009, the case was scheduled for an August jury draw. Meanwhile, more depositions were conducted and further witness leads were developed. As a result, Attorney Willey filed a motion to continue the jury draw scheduled for August 12, 2009.

¶ 3. On September 9, 2009, defendant filed an unsigned pro se motion to dismiss all charges on the grounds that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. He also sent a multi-page letter to the judge venting his frustration with counsel, alleging that his counsel was not providing adequate representation and expressing his desire to have a quick resolution to the charges. A signed copy of the motion to dismiss was filed on October 6, 2009. Both documents were sent to Attorney Willey and the state's attorney. Based on defendant's allegations, Attorney Willey filed a motion to withdraw, which was granted at an October 13 status conference. Attorney Joseph Benning was appointed on October 20, 2009 to represent defendant. A hearing on the motion to dismiss was set for December 10, 2009. The hearing was rescheduled for December 21 after the State requested a continuance for medical reasons. On that day, the court heard and denied a motion to exclude in-court identification of defendant.

¶ 4. The court heard defendant's motion to dismiss on February 8 and February 22, 2010. At the hearing, Attorney Willey acknowledged that he had no direct contact with defendant from September 2008 until May 2009, but claimed his office maintained contact with defendant through a staff investigator. The investigator testified about his investigation of leads provided by defendant and of discussions with defendant as to how the defense should be conducted. Defendant testified as to his dissatisfaction with Attorney Willey's representation of him and stated that he did not want to go to trial while represented by Attorney Willey. He further testified he was aware that a change of attorneys would further delay a trial date.

¶ 5. The court advised the parties that, in all likelihood, the trial would go forward before a decision was rendered on the speedy-trial issue. And, in fact, that is what happened. The trial took place March 17 and March 18, 2010 and resulted in a mistrial due to a hung jury. Nonetheless, the motion hearing judge issued her decision regarding the speedy-trial issue on March 22, 2010, denying defendant's motion to dismiss and concluding that his constitutional right to a speedy trial was not violated. Defendant appeals that decision.

¶ 6. In reviewing a decision which determines whether a defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial has been violated, the trial court's legal conclusions are reviewed de novo and its findings of fact are reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard. State v. Brillon, 2008 VT 35, ¶ 14, 183 Vt. 475, 955 A.2d 1108, rev'don other grounds sub nom. Vermont v. Brillon, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1283 (2009). On appeal, defendant challenges only the trial court's legal conclusions, and therefore, our review is de novo.

¶ 7. To assess whether there has been a violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial, this Court has adopted the four-factor balancing test set forth in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530 (1972); see State v. Vargas, 2009 VT 31, ¶ 11, 185 Vt. 629, 971 A.2d 665; see also Brillon, 2008 VT 35, ¶ 14. Our most recent decision on this issue was State v. Vargas, 2009 VT 31, wherein we explained that we weigh the conduct of the prosecution and the defendant while looking at (1) the length of delay; (2) the reason for delay; (3) the extent to which the defendant asserted the speedy trial right; and (4) any prejudice to the defendant from the delay. Id. ¶ 11. The first step is to determine whether the length of the delay was presumptively prejudicial. If not, it is unnecessary to inquire into the other balancing factors, for the right to a speedy trial was not violated. See id. ¶¶ 11-12. However, if the delay is long enough to be presumptively prejudicial, then that factor is balanced along with the remaining factors in determining whether a speedy-trial violation exists. Brillon, 2008 VT 35, ¶ 15.

¶ 8. In this case, approximately twelve months passed from the date of arraignment to the date of the speedy trial complaint; it was another six months before the conclusion of the first trial. PC4. The total delay was about eighteen months.*fn1 This delay is sufficient to require consideration of all of the factors. See Vargas, 2009 VT 31, ¶ 13 (finding that a delay of nine months was sufficient to require consideration of the factors); State v. Benjamin, 2007 VT 52, ¶17, 182 Vt. 54, 929 A.2d 1276 (concluding that eight-month delay from complaint to disposition is not per se prejudicial but is sufficient to trigger analysis of the other factors); State v. Unwin, 139 Vt. 186, 195, 424 A.2d 251, 257 (1980) ("We believe that a delay of more than six months in a case involving an incarcerated defendant is long enough to require that the other factors be considered.").

¶ 9. Thus, we turn to the reason for the delay. Like in Vargas, the crime at issue is a serious felony, and the rules of criminal procedure contemplate several months of discovery. See 2009 VT 31, ¶ 13 (noting that Vermont Rule of Criminal Procedure 15(a) affords parties ninety days to take depositions). The delays at issue were not in the commencement of the hearings but in the completion of pretrial hearings and the discovery process. See Benjamin, 2007 VT 52, ¶ 17 (distinguishing delays in commencement of hearings from delays in completion of hearings timely commenced). Further, the case had multiple witnesses, eight of whom the State called at the ...

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