The nine-member D.C. Court of Appeals has reinstated the felony murder conviction of a Northeast Washington man who contended that he was denied a speedy trial because 25 months elapsed between his arrest and trial by jury.
In issuing its decision Tuesday night, the court overturned the unprecedented ruling last year by a three-judge appeals panel, which held that prosecutors had violated the defendant's constitutional rights by causing unnecessary delays and ordered the conviction set aside.
Francis D. Carter, director of the D.C. Public Defender Service, said he was "obviously disappointed" by the full court's ruling. The court issued a statement saying a written opinion on the ruling would be issued later, and Carter declined further comment until then.
The appeal of 40-year-old Whitfield Graves, who was convicted in the 1979 slaying of a reputed bootlegger and sentenced to life in prison, gained widespread attention because of mounting backlogs in the city's trial court and concerns in Congress that many cases were taking too long.
While the appeals court sometimes overturns convictions on speedy trial grounds, the panel's decision in Graves' case was the first in memory involving a charge as serious as murder.
The divided panel decision, written by retired Judge Catherine B. Kelly with a concurring opinion by Judge John M. Ferren, found that the case against Graves was prejudiced because he was forced to wait for more than two years in D.C. Jail for his day in court.
The panel found that several months of delays were directly attributable to a government request to continue the case because police officers who were to be key witnesses were on leave.
Another delay resulted when the prosecutor in the case tore ligaments in his knee and had to stay home. The case was further delayed six months when the government appealed a lower court ruling that an alleged confession Graves had given to police could not be used as evidence.
Judge James A. Belson dissented, saying the reversal was inconsistent with a similar case in which the court upheld the jury's conviction.
Kelly has since returned to private practice and did not participate in yesterday's ruling by the full court.
Unlike the federal government and other Washington area jurisdictions, the District has no speedy trial requirement. The appeals court here has set one year as a threshold limit for determining when defendants' rights to speedy trials have been violated.
Civil rights activists have been lobbying for a more formal measure and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who earlier this year backed legislation authorizing seven additional judges on D.C. Superior Court, has also suggested the possibility of legislating a speedy trial limit.