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Virginia Prosecutors Face Deadlines Despite Judicial Emergency

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Any one charged with a crime in Virginia is entitled to a speedy trial. But, a speedy trial in the age of coronavirus is proving to be a challenge.

Five months. That’s the deadline for prosecutors across Virginia. They must have a trial within five months of an indictment or a preliminary hearing, and that means the clock is ticking for a lot of cases that were brought before the crisis that prompted a judicial emergency postponing most court proceedings.

Virginia legal expert Rich Kelsey says one option is to drop the cases and bring them later. 

“And if you drop the charges, we call it nolle pros, which means you decided to let the case go for now, you have this difficulty of releasing into the population people who you thought should have been tried for a serious crime,” says Kelsey.

State Senator Joe Morrissey is a Democrat from Richmond who is also a former defense attorney. He says many people behind bars shouldn’t be there anyway.

“Because you release somebody on bond doesn’t mean that they’re going to go out on a crime spree because their trial has been continued," he explains. "There’s no empirical evidence that that happens. Furthermore, releasing low-risk individuals isn’t dangerous in the slightest under any circumstance.”

As the deadline for all those indictments brought in December and January approaches, prosecutors might be feeling a heightened sense of urgency, and they’re running out of options. Offer plea deals that’ll be difficult for defendants to turn down or release them from jail and set a trial date sometime in the future.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.