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Speedy Trial Right Violated After 33 Years Passes for Murder?

Does the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial mean a murder case must be dismissed when thirty-three years passes?
The Reader’s Digest Version:  The passage of 33 years after a murder until the prosecution of defendant is not a Sixth Amendment (right to a speedy trial) violation when defendant immediately fled California after the crime and took up a new life in Texas, only to be ultimately found by police.
The following case put the Sixth Amendment to the test, as Jose Garcia immediately moved to Texas after the alleged murder took place in Baldwin Park in 1976.  The prosecution filed a complaint naming Garcia just eight days after the murder.  Three days later, an arrest warrant was issued for Garcia’s arrest.  However, police could not find Garcia.
image descriptionSecond Appellate District Court of Appeal CA Los Angeles

Thirty-three years later, in May, 2009, police in Texas received a tip from the FBI that Garcia was in Laredo, Texas.  He was promptly arrested and returned to California.  In 2011, following two mistrials, a jury convicted Garcia of first degree murder with a firearm.  The judge sentenced Garcia to life in prison, plus five years, with the possibility of parole.

Garcia appealed the conviction to the Second Appellate District, arguing that he was denied his right to a speedy trial.  He also argued that he was denied the right to confront a key witness.

The Second Appellate District noted at the outset of its ruling (People v. Jose Carmen Murillo Garcia (2014 DJDAR 1779)) that according to a witness at trial, Garcia and the witness immediately drove to San Ysidro.  Along the way, Garcia tossed the gun from the car into bushes along the 10 Freeway.  Once in San Ysidro, the two walked across the border into Tijuana and separated.  

This witness testified at the first trial, but then returned to Mexico and refused to testify again at the second trial.  He stated that his family was receiving death threats.  In the second trial, the judge found this witness to be legally unavailable, so the judge allowed the reading of the witness’ testimony from the first trial to the jury.

The appellate court then began its legal analysis, noting that both the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution, at Article 1, Section 15, guarantee a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial.  Under both state and federal law, due process of law also bars prejudicial delay in bringing a defendant to trial (People v. Martinez (2000) 22 Cal. 4th 750, 754, Doggett v. United States (1992) 505 U.S. 647, 655, fn. 2).  Both rights are triggered by the filing of a criminal complaint (People v. Martinez, supra, at 754).

image description
To prevail on either speedy trial or due process grounds, defendant must first show prejudice caused by the delay and then, if this is shown, the prosecution must then justify the delay.  The court then balances the harm against the justification.

The prosecution argued that Garcia forfeited his right to a speedy trial by fleeing California to avoid prosecution (People v. Perez (1991) 229 Cal. App. 3d 302).

The court of appeal agreed with the prosecution, quickly ending the need for any balancing test or even consideration of whether Garcia had suffered prejudice by the delay.  The court cited to Perez further, which held that “a defendant who flees the jurisdiction of a court for the purpose of avoiding prosecution waives the right to a speedy trial."  Id. at 308.

Anticipating this position, Garcia had argued that he did not waive the right to a speedy trial because he did not know there was a complaint against him.  After all, for a waiver to be proper, it must be done so knowingly and with an appreciation for the consequences.  Doggett, supra, at 653.  Garcia never did this.

The appellate court considered this argument specious at best.  The court pointed to the fact that Garcia fled immediately to Tijuana and, en route, discarded the evidence of the gun.  Citing to Perez, the court explained that it did not matter that Garcia was “not informed of the exact nature of the charges” before he fled.  Garcia’s conduct was substantial evidence that "demonstrated he was aware of the nature of the charges and actively sought to avoid prosecution.”

Consequently, the trial court’s order was affirmed.

The citation for the Second District Court of Appeals ruling discussed above is People v. Jose Carmen Murillo Garcia (2d App. Dist., 2014) 223 Cal.App. 4th 1173, 168 Cal.Rptr.3d 23.

For more information about a delay in prosecution, click on the following articles:
  1. Over Four Year Delay Before Filing First Degree Murder Charges Not Sufficient to Merit Dismissal
  2. Sixth Amendment Right to a Speedy Trial Not Violated When There Is a Seven Year Delay Between Arrest and Murder Trial
  3. Arrested for Misdemeanor DUI in January, 2011; Arraigned in February, 2013; Is Defendant’s Right to Speedy Trial Violated?
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