U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up Speedy-trial Fight in Montana Case

The Sixth Amendment has been around for 225 years

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week in a Montana criminal case on whether the constitutional right to a speedy trial ends with a conviction or continues through a defendant’s sentencing.

Brandon Betterman, who waited 14 months in the Butte-Silver Bow Detention Center before being sentenced on a bail-jumping charge, argues that delay was a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a “speedy and public trial.”

Montana prosecutors say Betterman’s trial ended with his guilty plea, and with it, his claim to a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

The Sixth Amendment has been around for 225 years, but the question of whether sentencing falls under its speedy-trial provision has never before reached the nation’s highest court. Lower federal and state courts have made conflicting rulings on the issue.

“At its bottom, the case presents a question of what that word ‘trial’ means against a long historical backdrop of Americans’ and Englishmen’s rights — all the way back to the Magna Carta — of a fair trial,” University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone said.

On the one side, 14 months is an awfully long time to wait to be sentenced, Johnstone said. However, he added, the Sixth Amendment speaks about the right of the accused to have a speedy and public trial. Once a defendant is convicted, he’s no longer simply accused — he’s guilty — and some rights go away, Johnstone said.

“At the moment of conviction, the scales of justice tilt the other way,” said Johnstone, who informally consulted with the state attorney general’s office as it was preparing for Monday’s arguments before the Supreme Court.

Betterman’s attorney, Fred Rowley, did not return a call for comment. Rowley argued previously that the court has said final judgment in a criminal case does not come until sentencing, and he noted the lower courts’ differing rulings on the matter.

“This court should resolve the persistent split in authority and provide a clear answer to this important question,” Rowley wrote. “The Speedy Trial Clause’s applicability to sentencing bears on every criminal case in which a conviction is obtained.”

Betterman jumped bail when he failed to appear in a Butte court in 2011 on a domestic violence charge. He was sentenced to five years in prison on the domestic violence charge, and he pleaded guilty to the separate charge of jumping bail in April 2012.

The delays included waiting for completion of a pre-sentencing investigation report, then a further holdup when he tried to get the charge against him dismissed because of the time it was taking to sentence him.

Betterman was finally sentenced to seven years on the bail-jumping charge in June 2013. He said he should have been eligible for conditional release for the domestic violence conviction by then, but he wasn’t yet in the prison system. He also couldn’t complete other requirements of his domestic violence sentence, such as counseling, and the delay had caused him anxiety and depression, he said.

Betterman appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled that the right to a speedy trial does not extend from conviction to sentencing. That decision reversed the state court’s own 2006 ruling that came to the opposite conclusion.

Betterman petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted his petition in December.

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