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Law School Case Brief

Barker v. Wingo - 407 U.S. 514 (1972)


A balancing test necessarily compels courts to approach speedy trial cases on an ad hoc basis. Courts can do little more than identify some of the factors which courts should assess in determining whether a particular defendant has been deprived of his right. Though some might express them in different ways, there are four such factors: Length of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant's assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant. 


Following the arrest of petitioner Willie Mae Barker and another as suspects in a murder case, the state obtained, on the first day of the other suspect's trial, the first of what was to be a series of 16 continuances of Barker's trial. It was not until after a sixth trial that the other suspect was finally convicted of the two murders with which he and Barker had been charged. Barker made no objection to the first 11 continuances granted by the state trial court; but when the state moved for the twelfth time to continue his case, in February 1962, he filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, which was denied. Following the granting of two other continuances, to which Barker did not object, his trial was set for March 1963, the first term of court following the other suspect's final conviction. On the day of trial, the state again moved for a continuance, citing as its reason the illness of the ex-sheriff who was the chief investigating officer in the case. Barker objected unsuccessfully to this continuance. One additional continuance was granted for the same reason. Thereafter, the trial was set for October 1963; Barker filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on the ground that his right to a speedy trial had been denied; the motion was denied. Trial commenced, with the other suspect as the chief prosecution witness, and Barker was convicted and given a life sentence. The conviction was affirmed on appeal, following which Barker sought a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. The district court rejected the petition without holding a hearing, but granted Barker leave to appeal. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment, holding that Barker had waived his speedy trial claim for the entire period prior to the date on which he filed his first motion to dismiss, and that the remaining period of time until his trial was not unduly long. Barker was granted a writ of certiorari.


Was Barker denied his right to speedy trial?




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the appellate court's judgment. The rule that the Court adopted and used as a factor in determining whether the speedy trial right had been denied was whether or not he had asserted his right. However, a waiver of that right could not be presumed, except as to delay caused by Barker himself. The conduct of both the prosecution and Barker were to be balanced, taking into account Barker's assertion of the right, prejudice to Barker, the length of delay, and the reasons for the delay. Given the minimal prejudice and the fact that Barker had not wanted a speedy trial, Barker's rights had not been violated.

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