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.