Complexity of cases ups time for trials
BRECKENRIDGE – For Jocelan Martell and Katie Wieland, the 15 months it took to convict Brian Stockdale of manslaughter in the death of their son and husband seemed like an eternity.
But those involved in the case say it could have been a lot worse.
Stockdale, 21, was convicted last week on first-degree assault and manslaughter for his part in the Nov. 1, 2002, beating of Cody Wieland, who died nine days later.
Two others, Michael Scott Dietert and Brandon Robbins, both 22, face trial on second-degree murder charges this year in connection with Wieland’s death.
“What makes it take longer is the complexity of the case,” said District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who with chief deputy district attorney Rachel Fresquez tried the Stockdale case. “This was a pretty complex case.”
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial,” which means a defendant must be tried within 180 days of their pleading not guilty.
Many defendants in complicated cases waive their right to a speedy trail because of the time needed to prepare a case.
“The courts have tried to speed things up,” Hurlbert said. “We work with attorneys and the probation department, the judge limits continuances and pushes parties to get a disposition (guilty plea) on the case.”
Police officers got a break in the Stockdale case when they were called to the 200 block of South Main Street in Breckenridge. They had four eyewitnesses, most of whom were able to identify Stockdale and place him at the scene of the crime.
Some victims’ families aren’t so lucky, said Martell, who meets regularly with Parents of Murdered Children, many of whose members are still waiting for police to arrest a suspect in their loved one’s death.
Stockdale, Dietert and Robbins were arrested within days, and while some investigators were busy gathering statements, others were collecting evidence from the crime scene.
All those jobs – taking photographs of the scene, interviewing those involved, compiling photo lineups and filling in story holes – take time.
All the while, Wieland languished in a hospital bed, kept alive by machines.
Hurlbert initially charged the three men with first-degree assault; when Wieland’s family took the 36-year-old off life support, Hurlbert changed those charges to include second-degree murder.
From there, lawyers craft a case around the incident.
“That’s when you shore up any holes, hire your experts, nail down questionable evidence,” Hurlbert said. “A lot of stuff goes into this. Each case takes a lot of time to deal with all these issues.”
In Colorado, the defendant first appears before a judge in an arraignment, where the judge advises him or her of the charges against them.
In some cases, the attorneys will cobble together a plea bargain, which usually results in a lesser charge in exchange for a guilty plea.
Dietert tried four times to get District Court Judge Terry Ruckriegle to agree to a plea bargain amenable to both the prosecution and defense, but Ruckriegle denied it each time.
At a preliminary hearing, the judge determines if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. In Stockdale’s case, the preliminary hearing was conducted twice because budget cuts forced the court to use audio tapes – tapes that failed to pick up the entire proceeding.
Hurlbert said the case would have taken about a year if the preliminary hearings hadn’t been repeated.
Before a trial, attorneys develop defense strategies and submit various motions, or requests of the court. In Stockdale’s case, Hurlbert said, the attorneys submitted eight to 10 motions – not many for a homicide case, he said.
Adding to the time constraints these days are budget cuts that have forced the Fifth Judicial District to cut staff and hours worked. Additionally, the number of cases filed in the district is up 30 percent, Ruckriegle said.
Hurlbert estimates he spent 150 to 200 hours on the Stockdale case – and that doesn’t include deputy district attorney Rachel Fresquez, the defense counsel, police, investigators, experts and witnesses.
“It means the attorneys are working overtime,” Hurlbert said. “A lot of time has been spent on this case by a lot of people.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or email@example.com.
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