Winfield Graves was convicted of first-degree felony murder in the death of James R. Matthews, who had been gagged, bound with electrical cord and strangled in his own apartment. Mr. Graves and two accomplices, Alvin Poston and Larry Brown, were arrested on Oct. 16, 1979. Mr. Poston and Mr. Brown were tried and convicted, in February and May 1981; for a variety of reasons, Mr. Graves did not go to trial until November of that year, a full 25 months after his arrest. Last week, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that such a lengthy delay violated Graves' Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, and he was ordered released from prison.

Freeing a man who has been convicted by a jury of first-degree murder is not a decision lightly taken. The court's opinions--majority, concurring and dissenting--are detailed and meticulous, with each instance of delay isolated and assessed. To set the case in context, it should be remembered that the criminal caseload at Superior Court is staggering, with 7,000 to 8,000 cases pending at any given time. Some delay is inevitable: the prosecutor is ill; the key witness is unavailable; the judge is overscheduled. None of the delay in this case was maliciously caused by the prosecution, but some steps that might have saved time--asking for an expedited appeal of a pretrial decision to suppress a confession, for example--were not taken.

All three judges on the panel agree that 25 months is too long to wait in jail for trial; all agreed that Mr. Graves had protested this delay early and often as the proceedings dragged on. They divided, however, on the question of whether he had suffered harm sufficiently prejudicial to warrant the extraordinary remedy of release. Judges Kelly and Ferren hold that 25 months' incarceration pending trial is harm enough, even though 14 months of that time could be attributed to the fact that parole on an earlier offense had been revoked when Graves was arrested for this crime. Judge Belson, in dissent, argues that this delay was no worse than in other cases upheld by the court, and he points out that the appellant's defense was not impaired--no witnesses died, no documents were lost, no details of testimony forgotten during the 25 months.

Because the Graves case is profoundly important for the courts and for the community, prosecutors are expected to ask the full appellate court to rehear the case. Meanwhile, steps must be taken to protect every case from being reversed on speedy-trial grounds. All delays of more than a year are suspect when the accused person is in custody awaiting trial. At that time, prosecutors are on notice that every move must be expedited, every court date met, every judge alerted to the ticking clock. The freeing of convicted murderers is too steep a price to pay for procrastination.