On Sept. 6, 1901, the 25th president of the United States was shot and fatally wounded inside the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.
On Sept. 6, 1901, the 25th president of the United States was shot and fatally wounded inside the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. President William McKinley was shaking hands with the public when he was shot by Anarchist Leon Czolgosz who, as the president reached out to shake his hand in the reception line at the Temple, shot him twice.
The president died on Sept 14. McKinley became the third American president at that time to be assassinated, following Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James A. Garfield in 1881. Czolgosz went on trial for the murder of McKinley in state court in Buffalo nine days after the president died. The prosecution entered only two days of testimony. After a half hour of deliberations, Czolgosz was convicted of murder by his jury. He was sentenced to death and died in the electric chair on Oct. 29, 1901, one month and five days after his victim’s death.
While it can be argued that times have changed, this was a speedy trial.
Fast forward to Nov. 5, 2009. U.S. Army major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. Hasan’s rampage caused more casualties on an American military base than any other in history. Yet it took almost two years for Hasan to be arraigned by a military court and be charged with murder in 2011. His court-martial commenced more than two years later on Aug. 7, 2013. Hasan was found guilty on all 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder on Aug. 23, 2013 and was sentenced to death on Aug. 28, 2013, three years and nine months after his crime.
Fast forward again to September of this year. U.S. Army soldier Robert Bowdrie “Bowe” Bergdahl, accused of deserting his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009, sits in a hearing. It’s what’s known as an Article 32 hearing that will articulate evidence against Bergdahl and make recommendations to the senior officer judging the case whether to court-martial him for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
It has been 16 months since Bergdahl was freed in a “terrorists for Bergdahl trade” in May 2014 and brought home to face his accusers. In what is a far simpler case than Hasan’s Fort Hood shooting spree, it could be two years since his release from captivity before Bergdahl is tried.
These are just two of the high-profile cases that have taken years to complete since Czolgosz shot and killed a president of the United States and was then tried, convicted, sentenced and executed in a month. What’s happened to the right to a speedy trial in our country?
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution reads: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.” Case law also supports the right to a speedy trial. In Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), the Supreme Court said there was a four-part test for determining whether a defendant’s speedy trial right had been violated. Factor one of this test is “length of delay.” A delay of a year or more from the date on which the speedy trial right begins (the date of arrest or indictment, whichever first occurs) was termed by the Supreme Court as “presumptively prejudicial.”
Both Hasan’s and Bergdahl’s trials, then, violate the speedy trial case law, the 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial, and must therefore be “presumptively prejudicial.” Of course, military law and the law that applies to the rest of us are different. But they shouldn’t be so different that years go by before a Hasan or a Bergdahl can be convicted.
Like the Hasan case, the Bergdahl case is controversial and politically sensitive for the Obama Administration. The Government Accountability Office found that the “terrorists for Bergdahl” trade violated federal law because the White House did not provide Congress with the required 30 days’ notice before the swap. Attempting to defend its actions, White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice later quizzically said Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.” She likely spoke out of turn.
Yet, while not outwardly apparent, it will be for the members of his court martial to decide whether Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl really did serve with “honor and distinction.”
Acid was poured into the casket of President McKinley’s killer, dissolving Czolgosz’s body before burial. Perhaps proverbial acid should also be poured on the political shenanigans, dissolving those that delay the right to a speedy trial. Guilty or innocent, Uniform Code of Military Justice or Constitution, honorable service or not, Bergdahl has a right to a speedy trial, a trial that has taken far too long to come to fruition just like too many trials in our overly politicized 21st century.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at email@example.com.