Man loses argument that COVID-19 shouldn’t have delayed his trial

A man accused of murder, who argued his right to a speedy trial was violated when the Morgan Superior Court delayed his hearing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, wasn’t able to secure a discharge from jail after the Indiana Court of Appeals found the public health emergency was sufficient to uphold the postponement.

Justin Blake was charged with murder, felony murder and Level 2 felony robbery in the death of Alexander Jackson. Four days after he was arrested, he filed a request for a “fast and speedy jury trial.”

Blake was appointed counsel and the Morgan Superior Court scheduled the jury trial for Dec. 8, 2020.

However, in November, when positivity rates were climbing, the Indiana Supreme Court ordered trial courts to comply and enforce local and statewide public health directives.

The Morgan Superior Court determined the situation locally constituted an emergency under Indiana Criminal Rule 4(B)(1) and, over Blake’s objection, continued the jury trial until March. Also, the court ordered all discovery, including depositions, to be completed no later than seven days prior to the trial.

On Dec. 14, 2020, the Supreme Court suspended all in-person jury trials until March 1. That same day, Blake filed a motion for discharge, arguing the emergency continuance provisions of Criminal Rule 4 “cannot be reasonably applied to a ten-month-old and ongoing public health crisis when adequate precautions can be made that both accommodate the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees and address public health concerns.”

After the trial court, Blake filed a continued motion for discharge along with a motion to suppress evidence. He argued, in part, that because of the delay in his trial, he had been prejudiced because the state was able to continue investigating and identifying additional witnesses against him. An alternative to discharge, he asserted, was to suppress the evidence that had been accumulated after his original trial date got pushed back.

In denying his motion, the trial court pointed out that its November order set the deadline for discovery to seven days before the March 2021 trial. Consequently, the evidence Blake wanted to suppress “has been produced by the State prior to the discovery cut-off ordered by the Court.”

Blake then filed an interlocutory appeal. He asked the Court of Appeals whether the denial of his constitutional right to a speedy trial requires the suppression of any evidence garnered by the state after the expiration of the 70 days when the delay is not caused by the defendant.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in Justin M. Blake v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-405.

Under Criminal Rule 4(B)(1), a defendant held in jail who moves for an early trial shall be discharged if not brought to trial within 70 calendar days from the date of the motion. But the appellate panel pointed out the rule allows for exceptions.

Blake argued the coronavirus public health crisis was not an emergency sufficient enough to violate his speedy trial rights.

The Court of Appeals disagreed.

“… (T)he trial court continued Blake’s jury trial, noting the current conditions within Morgan County with regard to COVID-19 infections and positivity rate coupled with the complexity of the case against Blake,” Judge Robert Altice wrote for the panel. “The court explained that ‘at that point in time the reality was it was just unable to meet the minimum requirement of public safety necessary to subpoena and summons a jury in to hear the case.’ Despite the fact that the pandemic had been occurring for approximately ten months, it continued to present a very real danger.”

Altice concluded, “The trial court’s finding that an emergency existed was reasonable in light of the circumstances relating to the Covid-19 pandemic that existed at the time.”

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