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5 Reasons Criminal Trials Are Often Delayed

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

Although an accused criminal is often arrested immediately following an alleged crime, that person's criminal trial may take years to complete because of delays in the proceedings.

The ongoing trial of accused Colorado theater gunman James Holmes, for example, was delayed several times before jury selection began earlier this week. According to Yahoo! News, the trial has been delayed for two and a half years, more than three times the timetable recommended by the Supreme Court of Colorado for felony criminal cases. The case has already had five trial dates and two judges, with a request for a third denied. In addition, more than 1,700 motions, notices, orders, and other court documents have been filed in the case.

What are some of the more common reasons for delays in a criminal trial? Here are five:

  1. Psychiatric evaluations. Criminal trials may be delayed while the defendant undergoes psychiatric evaluation to determine whether or not he is fit to stand trial. The trial of another accused gunman, Jared Loughner -- who was convicted of killing six people in a shooting in which former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was also injured -- was delayed for more than a year after Loughner was found mentally unfit. Loughner eventually plead guilty.
  2. Change of venue. In high-profile cases like Holmes', defense attorneys often ask for a change of venue, arguing that it'd be impossible for their client to get a fair trial in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. This may lead to delays, even if the request is eventually denied, as it was in Holmes' case.
  3. More time needed to prepare. Trial delays may also be granted if attorneys can show they have not had adequate time to prepare. Judges generally have wide discretion to grant delays in order to allow attorneys to prepare or review evidence. But these requests may also be denied, as it was in the trial of George Zimmerman when his attorneys requested a six-month delay to ready their case.
  4. Scheduling conflicts. If an attorney involved in the case has a scheduling conflict with another case, a judge may agree to delay a trial in order to accommodate the attorney. In some instances, a judge may even agree to delay a trial for more personal reasons, such as the birth of a lawyer's grandchild.
  5. Emergencies. Personal emergencies, such as medical issues or family issues, may also delay a trial. But criminal trials are generally bound by a defendant's constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial (though this can potentially be waived). The need for a speedy trial may compel a judge to deny a request for a continuance, even if it means an attorney is obligated to appear in court along with her newborn baby.

Find more information about criminal proceedings, criminal procedure, and a defendant's constitutional rights at FindLaw's section on Criminal Trial.

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