If you watch crime shows on TV, you’re used to seeing miraculous scientific analysis occurring within less than an hour. And you probably know that the reality is quite different. In fact, crime lab backlogs mean that law enforcement (and others) may wait for well over a year before the results are in.
But what about the trial itself? What kind of timeline is reasonable?
The 6th Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial, but it doesn’t give an guidelines for what’s considered acceptable. In practice, a criminal trial might not occur until several years after the events, especially if the case is complicated or if it requires a lot of preparation by either side. For example, I was recently consulted as an expert in a fairly straightforward homicide case. The person was killed in 2015, but trial is only now set to happen.
While long delays by the prosecutor may result in charges being dropped (because of the 6th Amendment), such an outcome is extremely rare. In most cases where the prosecutor wants a long time to prep, so does the defense, and the defense will agree to continuances.
Long delays in criminal cases are problematic, however. If the defendant can’t make bail, he’ll be stuck waiting in jail. Furthermore, witnesses disappear or die, evidence gets lost, and memories fade.
If you’re writing a story involving a criminal trial, make sure your timeline is realistic. And don’t forget that 95% of cases get settled (usually by plea bargain) without ever making it to trial.
Today’s post might be of particular interest to you if you write historical or spec fiction.
One of the interesting things about the US criminal justice system is how old many of its components are. Although we’ve modernized certain aspects over the centuries, most of the basic building blocks can be traced back to England in the years shortly after the Norman Conquest. Circuit judges, juries, sheriffs, coroners, writs of habeas corpus… all of these concepts would have been familiar to a 12th century English person. Many of the modern definitions of crimes and defenses also are evolved versions of common law definitions created many hundreds of years ago. This is a handy thing to know if you’re writing something set in medieval or Renaissance times.
However, you still want to be careful. Last night my husband watched a King Arthur movie. I only saw bits of it–enough to know that the writers got stuff wrong. King Arthur was around several centuries before the Norman Conquest, and the CJ system then–such as it was–would have likely followed Roman and/or Celtic traditions rather than the rules laid down by Norman King Henry II and his successors. So if your story takes place before 1066, don’t expect anything much resembling our modern CJ system.
Furthermore, some pieces of our CJ system were developed well after the Henry II was dust in his grave. For example, although England had poorhouses and workhouses as early as the 16th century, prisons weren’t really used as a method of punishment until the 18th century. (Jails have been around much longer, but then–as now–they were used mostly to hold prisoners who awaited trial.) Professional police forces originated with Robert Peel’s London Metropolitan Police (the Bobbies, of course) in 1829. The first juvenile court was created in Chicago in 1899.
A good working knowledge of history can give your story a solid grounding, whether you’re writing a historical piece or one set in an alternate universe.