San Francisco public defenders gathered outside City Hall in protest of court closures and delays that continue through the COVID-19 era — in violation of criminal defendants’ 6th Amendment rights.
The courts have been taking care of non-urgent civil cases, including trials to evict people from their homes, while criminal cases have not been prioritized, reported the Davis Vanguard.
“The court is supposed to enforce the law, not break it,” said SF’s Public Defender Mano Raju. “Public defenders will not stand by while members of our community are denied their right to a speedy trial, locked up for a year…”
Raju was one of the five “Super Friends” gathered in front of the Hall of Justice, They filed a civil lawsuit against San Francisco Superior Court for violating the 6th Amendment’s right to a speedy trial.
The lawsuit seeks to end the courts now-routine disregard for criminal cases while it holds jury civil trials for monetary damages.
SF public defenders pointed to the case of Kalief Browder, a young man held in New York’s Rikers Island jail for allegedly stealing a backpack. When he appeared in court after three years, his case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Raju spoke about how Browder would later take his own life as a result of trauma caused by all that time being unduly locked up.
Public Defender Landon Davis said, “We are the most progressive city in the United States, and we have our own version of Guantanamo Bay right around the corner. This is absurd.”
Davis added, “They are being held in a dirty, smelly cell, 23 hours out of the day, no ventilation, no place to move, and if they are lucky, they get one hour out of that cell.”
Davis said that these people are not getting counseling, have no library access, and they receive vitamin D pills because they get no sunshine. “This is modern-day torture.”
Jade Ariano of the Western Advocacy Project explained how San Francisco courts have recently prioritized nonessential civil cases like evictions.
“The only logic that can explain this is a carceral one rooted in racism and classism,” said Ariano. “The fact that over half the people sitting in jail are Black, when only 5% of the overall population of San Francisco is Black — it is not a coincidence.”
Raju mentioned a client he represents who expected his October 2021 hearing to be his last day in court but instead was bound over for trial.
“They put the case over. They didn’t put it over a couple of days. They didn’t put the case over a couple of weeks. They put the case over to February of 2022, months past the last day,” he said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Dozens of people attending the protest held signs displaying things such as “Free Our People, Open the Courts.” Many signs also stated number of days past individuals’ trial deadline—ranging from 180 days to 299.
The courts and legal system shouldn’t forget Browder, said Raju. “He wasn’t killed on the streets, but he was murdered by the system. We should never forget that lesson of life.”