A career criminal in Vermont was set free after a controversial ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court. Now the United States Supreme Court will decide if that ruling was justified.
In a split decision earlier this year, Vermont justices decided Michael Brillon did not get his constitutional right to a speedy trial. The Vermont Supreme Court threw out the domestic assault conviction and a 12 to 20 year prison term for Michael Brillon. The court determined that it took too long-- three years-- for his case to be tried. The Vermont Supreme Court determined his constitutional rights to a speedy trial were violated.
The split-court decision drew criticism and an appeal from the Bennington County State's Attorney. Erica Marthage claims the lion's share of the delays were caused by Brillon.
"This offender was considered very violent and very high risk," she said. "He was a very difficult client, frequently argumentative with his council and the judge. A number of attorneys he threatened or couldn't work with."
Marthage appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Now the high court has agreed to hear the case.
It's unusual considering just 80 or so cases will go to the U.S. Supreme Court out of thousands and thousands of requests each year.
Four of the nine justices must agree to take it up.
"I suspect in this case that at least four of those justices think that there was something wrong with this decision," said legal expert Cheryl Hanna, of the Vermont Law School.
Hanna says the U.S. Supreme Court will decide if the Vermont court got the speedy trial law wrong, if the law needs clarification, and what responsibility the defendant had in delaying his own trial. But Hanna says it has also become a case about victims' rights and one that will be watched across the country.
"It seemed he was using the criminal justice system to further harass and abuse his victim. This case isn't just important here in Vermont, it's important nationally for the hundreds of cases which defendants may be delaying trials asking attorneys to question victims further to possibly harass that victim," Hanna said.
Hanna and Marthage say the Vermont ruling has had consequences -- giving defendants incentive to try to game the system to get their cases thrown out.
"We've already seen a flurry of people referring to Brillon and why their charges should be dismissed," said Marthage. "To me, what the state is arguing is justified or I wouldn't have gone this far with it."
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case early next year. Its decision will impact how similar cases are handled across the country, what a speedy trial means, and if a defendant has a right to a speedy trial if he or she tries to delay it.
Cheryl Hanna says State's Attorney Erica Marthage has a good chance of winning and that the law is on her side.
If Marthage wins, it means Michael Brillon goes back to jail.
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