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State v. Alexander L. Hunsberger, A S.C. S. Ct. WIN on a Speedy Trial Issue! (filed October 12, 2016).

October 17th, 2016
Elizabeth Franklin-Best

Excellent work (of course) by Susan Hackett and Kat Hudgins. Although this is the published opinion, the Court also granted relief to this appellant’s brother who also raised the same issue. So, excellent result for both defendants. Too, read together with State v. Langford, 400 S.C. 421 (2012), cert denied 134 S. Ct. 60 (2013), it looks like our state courts are beginning to give these speedy trial issues the attention they have long deserved.

I’ve briefly highlighted some of the interesting aspects of this case because frankly, cases of this nature are incredibly fact-specific, and there isn’t much value in minutely detailing the experiences of a particular defendant. But here are some of the important aspects of this case, in my opinion:

  • In footnote 4, the Court notes that even though Hunsberger spent much of this time incarcerated on charges in Georgia, that did not factor into its prejudice analysis.  The Court cited to the United States Supreme Court opinion in Smith v. Hooey, 393 U.S. 374 (1969) which held that incarceration in one jurisdiction does not lessen the accused’s constitutional right to a speedy trial in another jurisdiction.
  • The Court also rejected the State’s contention that “complexity” and “cross border issues” justified the delay. The Court noted that the “seriousness” of a case does not equate to the “complexity” of a case. Though replete with heinous facts, this murder case was not particularly complicated. Also, the State failed to provide any evidence to support its claim that the “cross-border” issues had any bearing on the State’s delay.
  • The Court clearly found that the State delayed prosecuting Hunsberger because they were trying to coerce him into testifying against a co-defendant against whom the State had sought the death penalty (Disclosure: I represented this co-defendant, Steven Barnes). The Court found, “[t]he justifications advanced by the State for its delay are unsupported by the evidence, which in turn suggests that the State was using this murder charge as leverage to coerce Alex’s testimony in Barnes’ capital trial. The reasons for the delay is a factor that weighs heavily against the State.”
  • The Court also faulted both the trial court and the Court of Appeals regarding its analysis of “presumptive prejudice.” The Court makes clear that a defendant need not necessarily prove actual prejudice to obtain relief under a speedy trial claim. Presumptive prejudice cannot, standing alone, support a speedy trial claim, but it is “part of the mix of relevant facts, and its importance increases with the length of time.”

This is a very important case for South Carolina practitioners and criminal defendants, as it breathes life into an issue that many of us have been grappling with for years. It’s important to note that trial counsel preserved this issue for appeal. In many parts of the state, criminal defendants routinely take years to come to trial, but without complaint. This case proves that our courts are willing to intercede in cases where the State simply fails to try a defendant in hopes that defendant will plead guilty. If I had a client who was sitting in the detention center, unable to make bail, doing “Solicitor time” because he won’t plead guilty, I’d make a motion for reduced bail/ release and use this case in support of the motion.

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