Last October, Kenneth Dion was sentenced to 124 years in prison for the 1994 murder of Bonnie Craig. The legal process had taken five years. The long stretch from indictment to sentencing was, said Karen Foster, Craig's mother, an unnecessary and tortuous process for the family.
A bill has been proposed in the Alaska Legislature to speed up such lengthy proceedings by giving victims more say about when delays are allowed.
The Alaska Constitution currently guarantees that families of victims have the right to be present at all criminal proceedings where the accused is allowed, the right to confer with the prosecution, to be heard at sentencing and the right "to timely disposition of the case."
Foster does not consider five years "timely."
"It's demeaning," she said. "You can't schedule your life. Minor things are difficult. The anxiety is amazing at each one of those hearings."
In Dion's case, court records show 77 "events" -- hearings, conferences, motions, pre-trial events and the trial itself -- and more than 100 "dockets" -- the paper trail of the events and other requests, including orders, replies, notices and applications for media coverage.
Foster was baffled by repeated delays in the trial: attorneys going on vacations, the public defender's office declaring a never-explained conflict of interest, a DNA expert being fired by the defense shortly before the original trial date.
"I was in a plane flying up from Florida for one hearing and they cancelled it while I was in the air," she said. "Another time we had all the parties present except the defendant and were told the prisoner had refused to be transported from the jail. We'd been sitting there for 40 minutes and had to reschedule.
"No one ever waited for me."
The proposed law, SB 135, was introduced by Sen. Hollis French, a former prosecutor. It would require judges to consider the victim's constitutional right to a speedy trial when considering delays or, in legal talk, continuances.
French described his bill as "putting statutory teeth into victim's constitutional rights."
He acknowledged it might clash with the rights of defendants. "It's a difficult thing," he said. "How do you resolve two constitutional rights that may be at odds?"
But, French argued, extensive court delays can create "intolerable" stress for victims.
Anchorage criminal defense attorney Darrel Gardner, who has served on panels addressing delays, isn't certain that the bill will achieve its goal.
"For the courts there's going to be a question about what constitutes a 'substantial delay,' " he said. "That's open to interpretation. The way the amendment is written it will still be up to the judge."
In felony cases, most continuances are for one or two weeks, he said. "Is that 'substantial?' For a victim, probably yes. A week is too much. They want to go to trial right away. The problem is that there can be a lot of them and they can go on and on."
Not all delays are the fault of the defense, Gardner added. "There are times when the prosecution doesn't give the defense its discovery (evidence) or make a plea offer in time to consider it or review it with the client.
"The courts are not going to push a case if the defense attorney says, 'I haven't received discovery.' The Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel will trump other interests, including the interest of the victims."
Gardner said SB 135, if enacted, wouldn't affect defense attorneys so much as prosecutors. "The way I look at it, it will require a lot more work on their part."
Most states have laws recognizing a victim's general right to a speedy trial. But they address it in different ways, in the state constitution (as in Alaska), by statute, or both. In many, young victims or senior citizens have special standing, according to data on the website of the National Center for Victims of Crime (www.ncvc.org).
It's not clear to what extent such laws ease the burden, and the time spent waiting for justice, faced by victims.
French noted that his bill would not give victims a veto. They would not, for instance, be able to derail a plea agreement. They would, however, have increased statutory standing to be "notified and consulted," he said.
Being consulted would be nice, Foster said. "People don't understand how difficult it is for the family."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage Daily News