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San Francisco public defender sues court over trial delays

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco's public defender sued San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of nearly 400 people languishing in jail after being denied a speedy trial because of COVID-19 restrictions.

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said Tuesday he filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court against the court, its presiding judge and its CEO. The suit says the court has violated the rights of hundreds of people by failing to hold jury trials within 60 days as required by law.

Raju said trial delays began with the lockdown last year but that even though COVID-19 restrictions have eased, the court has failed to expedite criminal jury trials, creating a huge backlog that keeps growing as the courts fail to reopen closed courtrooms, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“The San Francisco Superior Court continues to give criminal trials the highest priority,” said court spokesperson Ken Garcia. “We will respond to the complaint in court.”

The U.S. and California constitutions guarantee people accused of a crime the right to a speedy trial, which state law defines as starting within 60 days after arraignment. But since COVID-19 shutdowns hit San Francisco on March 16, 2020, delayed trials have become the norm, the lawsuit says, with just 34 trials reaching a verdict in the ensuing 18 months.

All 12 courtrooms were shut down during the lockdown last year and criminal jury trials were automatically continued for 90 days. The court operated on and off with four courtrooms for about a year until June 2020. In July and August, just seven courtrooms were open for felony trials.

The backlog of cases — and jailed people awaiting trial — continued to grow. By Aug. 30, the suit says, the court had 388 cases still awaiting trial past the 60-day legal deadline, including 156 being held in San Francisco jails, many of them for nine months or more.

“Throughout the pandemic, the jail has imposed harsh, solitary-like conditions on its inmates. Even now, most are not allowed to leave their cell for more than one hour per day,” the suit said. “The jails are filled with pre-trial detainees, who are preemptively innocent of the charges against them.”

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