By Kevin Deutsch
BRONX SUPREME COURT- Two men accused in a 2012 murder have spent nearly seven years on Rikers Island and other detention facilities while awaiting trial–their incarceration a striking example of the case backlog plaguing the Bronx judicial system.
Both men were convicted of murder by a jury in April 2015, but saw their convictions reversed following revelations that a police officer sitting on the jury had “clearly showed a predisposition to believe that police officers testify truthfully,” and should never have been allowed on the panel, records show. In between their convictions and the reversals, the men also spent some time in state prison, records show.
Defendants in murder cases are typically held without bail pending trial in New York City, and spend about a year and half on average on Rikers Island or another city correction facility before ever going to trial. In the Bronx, pre-trial detention can last substantially longer, with some defendants spending two, three, and sometimes four or more years behind bars without ever being convicted of a crime.
The problem was brought into stark relief by the case of Kalief Browder, the teenager who spent nearly three years on Rikers Island—mostly in solitary confinement—and killed himself in 2015.
The city recently agreed to a $3.3 million settlement with his family.
The Bronx court delays, which critics say violate defendants’ constitutionally protected right to a speedy trial, have been the subject of lawsuits, settlements, and dozens of news stories dating back to at least 2009. Administrative judges have come and gone form the borough over the years, each instituting new strategies aimed at fixing the backlog
But a decade after first coming under public scrutiny, the delays continue.
There are multiple causes for the backlog, authorities say. Chief among them: the glut of felony cases that began clogging the system in 2004 when the state’s Chief Judge merged the Bronx Criminal Court, which handles misdemeanors, with the criminal section of State Supreme Court, where felonies are tried.
Instead of hastening the disposition of felony cases, the backlog increased exponentially, leading to a second reorganization of the courts that failed to alleviate the problem.
Other causes include the Bronx District Attorney’s Office documented strategy of purposely slowing down cases; the small number of court-appointed lawyers available to defend indigent defendants; reduced operating hours at the Bronx Hall of Justice (court business doesn’t begin until 9:30, and ends at 4:30 p.m. due to budget cuts); and the lack of a speedy trial statute for state-prosecuted homicides. (Under New York law, all felony cases except murder are typically required to go to trial within six months).
Court administrators have introduced a host of new strategies in the last decade aimed at speeding things up : judicial “SWAT teams,” dedicated trial parts, and promises to increase judicial accountability. The backlog has been dramatically reduced several times, but returned due to the immense number of cases borough courts must manage, officials say.
The Wall Street Journal on Sunday detailed the latest effort to relieve the backlog: the assignment of four judges dedicated to resolving the oldest Bronx cases.
New legislation being considered in Albany also aims to tackle the issues of pre-trial detention and speedy trial.
In the meantime, Whitefield and Johnson—the men accused of murder in 2012 and now spending a seventh year in jail—are still waiting for a new trial date to be set.
They are next due in court Monday.