by Ann Garrison
San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju spoke about why his office is suing San Francisco Superior Court for denying hundreds of Black and Brown people the speedy trial rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.
Ann Garrison: In a press release, your office wrote, “The population of San Francisco is 5.6 percent Black. As of Sept. 7, 2021, of the people in jail awaiting trial past their last day for trial, approximately 53.5 percent are Black.” That’s even worse than the racially disproportionate incarceration rate. Is that because 53.5 percent of people charged with crimes in San Francisco are Black or because more of them are still awaiting trial because of the pandemic?
San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju: We believe that this massive racial disparity in the number of people past their last day for trial can be traced to the disparity that already exists in the jail’s population because of biased arrest, charging and pretrial release decisions. The people incarcerated in San Francisco County Jail are approximately 50 percent Black. The vast majority of them are detained before trial. As a result, Black people make up more than half of the people unfairly deprived of their speedy trial.
AG: Most everything else has fully opened up in San Francisco, albeit with vaccine mandates for indoor spaces. Why haven’t the criminal courts?
MR: That is exactly the point we are raising. The courts have ostensibly re-opened as of this summer, but the criminal courts have remained locked and empty. The court has been citing the pandemic as the reason for this massive backlog, but it doesn’t explain the current situation, which we believe is due to a number of other chronic problems, as is alleged in the lawsuit.
AG: You said in a recent press release that other California counties are managing to meet the deadlines for granting defendants a right to a speedy trial. But this seems to be a problem in other major cities including Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Do you have any idea how widespread this problem is?
San Francisco held a mere 23 criminal trials from March 2020 to reopening.
MR: It is true that other California counties in and around San Francisco are rising to the challenge. For example, San Mateo County holds jury selection for three trials at once at their spacious County Events Center. The Sonoma County court holds jury selection at their County Fairgrounds. And Sacramento has held court in a college ballroom. Why isn’t there a single written record showing the San Francisco Court made an effort to find alternative locations to hold trials? Neighboring Contra Costa, a county of 1,153,526 people, handled 103 felony and misdemeanor criminal jury trials between May 2020 and April 2021, with no resulting COVID-19 cases. San Francisco held a mere 23 criminal trials from March 2020 to reopening.
Los Angeles is a county of 10 million and the situation there is not great. This humanitarian crisis needs to be addressed everywhere it exists, and with urgency. It is the role and responsibility of each county court’s presiding judge and CEO to manage the court’s proper functioning, allocate resources in compliance with the law and its duties, and alert and raise issues with the Judicial Council, its governing body, especially when it is violating the rights of over 400 people within its jurisdiction, as it is in San Francisco. We have seen no action by the court despite our attorneys filing legal motions and fighting every day for this fundamental, constitutional right to be upheld.
AG: The Sixth Amendment doesn’t specify a timeline for its guarantee of a “speedy trial.” Is there a single deadline or does this vary from state to state or county to county?
MR: California state law requires a trial court to set felony trial dates within 60 days of arraignment, unless the right is waived. It’s shorter, 30 and 45 days for in-custody and out-of-custody misdemeanor cases. It does not vary from county to county because it’s California state law. Other states have codified the speedy trial right in different ways.
AG: If it varies, what is the deadline in San Francisco? And what’s the range of days that defendants awaiting trial have been waiting past the legal deadline?
The people incarcerated in San Francisco County Jail are approximately 50 percent Black.
MR: The range is from a couple of days to close to a year.
AG: In April, US District Judge Cormac J. Carney dismissed at least four criminal cases in Los Angeles because the pandemic had, he ruled, denied them the right to a speedy trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. He said, “Nowhere in the Constitution is there an exception for times of emergency or crisis.” However, a three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision within a manner of weeks. Do you have reason to think that your lawsuit against the San Francisco Superior Court will be more successful?
MR: The San Francisco lawsuit is civil. It alleges, among other causes of action, that the court is violating a specific statute, California Penal Code section 1050(a), which says that the court must prioritize criminal over civil trials. The lawsuit demands that the SF Superior Court prioritize criminal trials over civil ones and devote all the resources at their disposal, including Civic Center courtrooms, to restoring the right of the criminally accused to a speedy trial in San Francisco.
AG: What sort of conditions are these defendants jailed in?
MR: Deplorable and inhumane conditions. Our community members have often been caged for 23 hours per day or more because of the COVID pandemic. This solitary-like confinement is even more oppressive than pre-COVID conditions of confinement. The few minutes per day that many of our clients get out of their cells, they need to choose between calling a loved one, taking a shower, and using supplies to clean their cell.
AG: What about those who are out on bail but still awaiting trial? How is this impacting their lives and their families?
MR: Even people who are not in jail, but whose speedy trial rights are being violated, are suffering. This is because they too are suffering oppressive pretrial conditions of release, such as orders that they stay away from their homes, neighborhoods and loved ones and having the weight of a criminal charge weighing over them for a year or more while they wait to be vindicated in court.
Such isolation can cause permanent mental, emotional, and physical harm.
AG: Are there any particular cases you’d like us to know about?
MR: There are countless cases we could highlight. Here are several examples included in our complaint, Raju v. Superior Court of California, City of San Francisco.
Paragraph 63: Robert Brewer was detained in jail from Aug. 19, 2020, to May 4, 2021, charged with murder. He never waived his right to a speedy trial. He was finally brought to trial in March 2021, three months after his trial deadline had passed. At trial, the jury acquitted him of all homicide offenses. He lost three additional months of his life and was released on the day of the verdict.
Paragraph 64: Emonie Bailey is a San Franciscan detained in jail who never waived his right to a speedy trial. He has been in custody since May 14, 2020, and his original trial deadline was Jan. 19, 2021. His case was not sent to a trial department for trial until Aug. 13, 2021, well over a year since his arrest and incarceration. Once sent out to a trial department, his case resolved. Under the jail’s COVID-19 policy, Mr. Bailey was confined to his cell for a minimum of 23 hours a day. Frequent lockdowns meant that he had only been allowed to leave his cell two or three times a week. In the 14 months that he had been detained, he had been deprived of in-person visits with his family. Such isolation can cause permanent mental, emotional, and physical harm.
Paragraph 65: Elias Zuniga is another San Franciscan detained in jail who has asserted his right to a speedy trial. He has been in jail since Jan. 19, 2021. He is only allowed to leave his cell one hour per day. He has only had one Zoom visit from his sister, which required the assistance of his public defender to set up. The deadline for his speedy trial was May 4, 2021. Defendant Court has set his trial for Nov. 4, 2021.
AG: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
MR: The criminal legal system in San Francisco is a continuation of the legacy of racial enslavement and colonialism. The court is denying hundreds of Black and Brown people their speedy trial rights and acting like it’s business as usual. We need all of us in their fight, and we should understand that this is not just a legal issue. It goes to the core of the struggle against race and class oppression in this country.
Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. Please support her independent journalism on Patreon. She can be reached on Twitter @AnnGarrison and at email@example.com.