Wednesday, October 07, 2020

In re Butler (Cal. Ct. App. - Oct. 7, 2020)

We rightly get irate at countries in which people are sometimes held without trial for years.  That's not right.  It's not due process.

But check out this case.  Not in some totalitarian foreign country.  But right here in America.  Indeed, in California.

Terrence Butler gets convicted of rape in 1993.  He's sentenced to 18 years in prison.  He serves his time.

But in 2006, the government seeks to continue to institutionalize him as a "sexually violent predator" (SVP).  That's permitted by law (though some people believe it pushes the envelope, or even crosses it).  At least he'll get a trial in which the accusation that he's mentally ill is tested in court before he continues to be deprived of his liberty.

At least in theory.

"Despite numerous demands from Butler that he receive a trial as soon as possible and explicit direction to the Alameda County Public Defender’s office that it was not authorized to waive time on his behalf, no trial was ever held. Butler was confined to a state hospital for 13 years awaiting trial on his SVP petition, during which time eight public defenders and six prosecutors cycled through his case, three trial dates were set and vacated, and more than 50 continuances were granted without a single objection raised by opposing counsel or a finding of good cause made by the trial court. There is no evidence that any of Butler’s public defenders ever consulted or retained a defense expert in this matter, and the prosecution never declared it was prepared to go to trial or insisted that a trial date be set. Indeed, after the trial court ordered a new probable cause hearing in May 2012, no such hearing was held, and Butler was detained for the next six years without a finding of probable cause."

So Mr. Butler remains institutionalized for 13 years with no trial.  The Court of Appeal says that's not okay.  Not here, and not anywhere.  

The Court of Appeal concludes:  "The record here amply supports the habeas court’s finding that blame for the delay must be shared between a district attorney’s office that abdicated its responsibility for prosecuting this case, a public defender’s office that disregarded Butler’s repeated demands for trial, and a trial court that took no meaningful action to set deadlines or otherwise ensure that Butler’s right to a timely trial was protected."

The state responds -- somewhat chillingly -- that individuals facing SVP charges have no right to a speedy trial at all.  In the opinion of the Alameda County District Attorney, people can be deprived of their liberty and institutionalized for 13 years without a trial and there's no legitimate complaint about such a result.

Thankfully, the Court of Appeal disagrees.

What happened to Mr. Butler wasn't simply the fault of prosecutors.  But it was the fault of the state writ large -- prosecutors, public defenders, and the trial court.  Ironically, the person who probably had the most accurate insight into what went down here was Mr. Butler, the one without any legal training whatsoever.  At one point, he said:  "It’s like they are breeding attorneys to basically pretty much treat cases like a relay race, just pass the baton every couple years, and they all requested to start over; they need an opportunity to review my case."  With all the changes in his assigned public defenders, that's a fairly accurate description of what transpired.  (Except, perhaps, for the "breeding" part.)

Unfortunate to see something like this go down.  But at least the judiciary (eventually) stepped in.