The US Supreme Court on Monday lifted an order that would have required Michigan prosecutors to retry a 2007 murder case by May 2021 or release the defendant after state officials cited COVID-19-prompted trial delays.
Michigan state prosecutors filed for a stay in December, pending the outcome of a petition for a writ of certiorari. Without the stay granted, the state claimed they would have had to take “extraordinary steps to retry [the defendant] for a 2007 murder in a western Michigan county (Kalamazoo), which currently is not conducting jury trials as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that county will not begin trials again until February of 2021 at the earliest.”
In the defendant’s opposition to stay the mandate, he asserted that “the equities thus favor [opposing the stay, as the defendant] has now spent more than a decade in prison based on an unconstitutional conviction. … The defendant is entitled—finally—to a fair trial or his release.”
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court granted the state’s application on Monday. The mandate of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Brown v. Davenport was thus “recalled and stayed pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari.”
COVID-19 has the potential to render witnesses unavailable, interfere with assembling prospective jurors, and hamper efforts to collect and present evidence. Ultimately, however, the government has the responsibility of ensuring defendants receive a speedy trial; criminal trials cannot be put off endlessly. The question remains whether these prolonged “COVID-related” continuances are even appropriate in cases in which COVID-19 is responsible for only a small amount of delay. As courts are just beginning to wrestle with the consequences of COVID-19, this area of law will continue to evolve.