Vermont Supreme Court hears ‘speedy trial’ appeals

Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 8:08 AM EDT|Updated: Mar. 21, 2023 at 5:15 PM EDT
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SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. (WCAX) - There is no denying that the pandemic caused a serious interruption to the court system in Vermont, in some cases delaying trials for years. But is that a violation of a person’s constitutional right to a speedy trial? That question was at the heart of several cases before the Vermont Supreme Court Tuesday.

For the first time since the pandemic, the Vermont Supreme Court was back on the road at the Vermont Law School. And coincidentally, one of the cases being argued before the justices had to do with the pandemic’s impact on the courts.

Larry Labrecque was convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager in 2022, but the alleged crime took place four years earlier. His trial was delayed mostly due to the pandemic. A judge overturned the conviction-agreeing Labrecque DID NOT receive a speedy trial. The state appealed THAT ruling and Tuesday lawyers for both sides took part in oral arguments before the high court.

“It is the government’s burden to bring a defendant to trial, and in this case, the state failed Mr. Labrecque,” said Allison Fulcher, Labrecque’s attorney.

Supreme court appeals are unlike criminal trials in that each side has only 15 minutes and attorneys are often interrupted by questions from the justices.

Fulcher told us afterward that Vermont’s judicial system should have done a better job opening back up after the height of the pandemic. “There was reason for the courts to shut down for a while but we don’t believe that the pandemic was completely unprecedented and that the courts could have been more prepared in getting trials back in order,” she said.

“I think that the COVID-19 pandemic clearly did disrupt some court operations -- which is concerning. Ideally, we would like the courts to be available to Vermonters whenever Vermonters need redress from the court,” said Deputy State’s Attorney Evan Meenan. He argued that the pandemic was unprecedented and a direct cause of the delays still being felt today. Therefore, he says Labrecque’s rights were not violated and that the court’s decision, in this case, could have a ripple effect throughout the entire court system. “An affirmance in this particular case could have ramifications for other cases that were delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic and potentially exacerbate the existing court backlog.”

Two other cases were also argued Tuesday. One dealt with the statute of limitations regarding child sexual assault cases and the other involved zoning issues in Burlington. The justices are not expected to issue a ruling on the cases for several months.

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