On July 7, 2011, Pablo Negron, 24, and his friends got into a bar fight with a couple of off-duty cops, Jason Reynolds, 28, and Albert Lloyd, 37. Lloyd had apparently made a pass at Negron’s girl, and when she rejected him he’d called the curly-haired Negron a “rabbit chinchilla.” The fight spilled onto the sidewalk. One witness said that Lloyd tried to pistol-whip Negron, but dropped the gun. Prosecutors, however, say that the gun fell when Negron charged at Lloyd. Either way, witnesses and prosecutors both say that Negron picked up the weapon and fired at Reynolds. Reynolds returned fire and struck Negron in the back and butt.
Negron, who says he acted in self-defense, was charged with attempted murder. A judge denied him bail. And for two years, he sat at Riker’s Island awaiting trial. But then earlier this week, a judge released him, the Post reported. Brooklyn’s District Attorney’s Office had taken too long to prepare for trial.
The episode illuminated the complicated balance inherent in America’s pretrial detention system.
One one side of the scale, Lady Justice must satisfy public safety concerns by keeping off the streets those defendants perceived by law enforcement to be dangerous. On the other hand, she must satisfy civil liberty concerns by supporting the maxim that a defendants is innocent until proven guilty.
The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, a union for the officers, wasn’t so philosophical in its thoughts on Negron’s release.
“A potential killer, let alone a potential cop killer, should never be released from custody on a technicality, particularly when a judge has some leeway in calculating speedy trial days,” the union’s president Pat Lynch told the Post. “There is no reasonable excuse for releasing this violent thug.”
The very reasonable excuse, in fact, is called the Sixth Amendment:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
This amendment, along the with the Eighth (“excessive bail shall not be required”), serve as a criminal defendant’s most powerful allies in a pretrial detention system that tends to, for lack of a better term, fuck people over.
More than 60 percent of people in county jails across the country have not been convicted of any crime. The sleep and eat with proven criminals, and are treated as such, because they did not have enough money to pay bail. Those who end up being acquitted in trial often return to life in tatters: You can’t pay rent, make car payments, or keep a job in jail.
Negron did not have the option for bail. A judge determined that, given the severity of his charges and his criminal history, he was a big enough danger to society or a big enough flight risk that he should be held behind bars as the lawyers prepared for trial.
Prosecutors have 90 days to get their case ready for trial. Often, though, defendants willingly waive their rights to a speedy trial to give their attorney–usually an overworked public defender–more time to build a defense. That’s why Negron had been at Riker’s for two years.
Anyone who’s followed a criminal case knows how much of a long, winding slog it can be. Delays are common, as attorneys on both side request more time for one reason or another.
In this case, though, Judge Ann Donnelly ruled that the prosecutors had not given sufficient reason for the excessive postponement. As the Post reported:
And while DA Charles Hynes’ prosecutors were legally able to extend his jail time as they prepared for trial, the judge finally ruled that they had run up 129 days of “unexcused” delay.
“The DA dropped the ball,” the Post quoted an anonymous court source. “The judge was not happy to do it. She wanted him in.”
Judges tend to give prosecutors the benefit of the doubt in the pretrial detention process–bail amounts are generally based on the prosecution’s version of the narrative. So it takes a real deviation from the procedural norm for a judge to release a defendant who had been previously held without bail. This prosecutorial lethargy can point to one or a couple of factors: Perhaps a prosecutor takes for granted that unconvicted defendants can linger in pretrial detention for years and years; or perhaps a prosecutor is struggling to gather enough evidence for a strong case.
Application of the Sixth Amendment keeps the D.A.’s office in check. Of course, all it takes is the one Willie Horton to make the system look foolish.