Frank A. Tate of Washington had spent almost a year in jail when he appeared on a recent Friday before a federal judge in Alexandria on a charge of interstate transportation of forged securities. Tate was tired of life behind bars and wanted to get the ordeal behind him.
But neither he nor his lawyer was prepared for what happened to his request for a speedy trial.
"You want a speedy trial?" asked District Judge Oren R. Lewis. "I'll give you one: next Wednesday."
Tate's Fairfax County lawyer Mark Werblood, says what followed was "total insanity." Caught off guard, both prosecution and defense lawyers scrambled over a weekend to ready the complicated criminal case for trial.
On the appointed trial date, the government had assembled 50 witnesses from around the country. But the defense still was not ready, and Tate's lawyer was reluctantly forced to ask for a delay.
(Last week, a federal jury convicted Tate on 10 counts of securities fraud. Sentencing has been set for Dec. 15.)
Many lawyers, used to clogged court dockets and schooled in the mechanics of legal procrastination, would be surprised by the speed with which cases are tried in federal courts of eastern Virginia.
"In this court," one federal prosecutor said recently, referring to the court jurisdiction encompassing Norfolk, Richmond and Alexandria, "we don't have speedy trials. We have instant trials. It practically takes an act of Congress to get a case delayed."
In Alexandria's federal courthouse presiding Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. and Lewis believe in rigid adherence to court timetables. Such legal stand-bys as continuances, or court-ordered delays, which are granted with regularity in most federal courts, are a distinct rarity there.
In his 18-year career on the federal bench, for example, Lewis, 76, is reputed to have handed down only two, an allegation he has never refuted.
"We do offer continuances here," Lewis said the other day, "but only for good cause. It's just that we never have it.... A lot of (defense lawyers) come up and say, 'It took the government two years to indict, so I want two years to bring the case,' Well, no such thing. We don't postpone (cases) for triviality."
As a result, the Eastern District of Virginia has one of the fastest involving federal court dockets in the nation. Last year, statistics show that the six judges in the district handled more than twice the number of trials handled by the 15 district judges in the District of Columbia -- and in just half the time.
Nationally, the Eastern District courts ranked seventh in the number of cases they disposed of last year, but the District of Columbia's federal courts ranked 89th.
"It makes us work like the dickens, (but) the Eastern District probably has the best docket control anywhere in the United States," said William B. Cummings, the district's chief prosecutor.
The way federal courts in Virginia handle their dockets is especially significant this year.In a move to put teeth in the Sixth Amendment's constitutional promise of a speedy trial, Congress has enacted guidelines that next year will hold federal prosecutors to a 100-day timetable in which they must bring criminal defendants to trial.
Implementation of those guidelines is expected to put increased pressure on the already crowded federal court.The guidelines were one reason Congress last year added 117 new federal district judges. Under Congress' plan, two more judges will be added in the Eastern Virginia District, a step that is likely make for even more speed in criminal trials there.
The speed "drives lawyers nuts, but it keeps the docket moving and the cost of litigating down," said Frank Dunham, who recently quit as a federal prosecutor in order to go into private practice.
"Generally, I would rather litigate in Virginia. You know when you are going to trial.It's carved in stone. And your opponent can't get a delay. And when you do go to trial, its boom-boom-boom."
Two years ago, while handling a major securities fraud case for the government, Dunham was forced to take a one-week leave just before the trial to attend his mother's funeral. Dunham's colleagues in the Alexandria U.S. attorney's office argued that Judge Bryan certainly would view the death as "good cause" for delay.
"I said, "Judge Bryan will never grant it," Dunham recalled this week. He was right.
Bryan, accoirding to another prosecutor, merely inquired whether the government had another lawyer available to handle the case -- and the trial continued as scheduled.