Monday, June 4, 2007

Due Process Denied?

Most crimes in Texas carry a statute of limitations. (see Chapter 12, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure) The limitations period means a crime must be prosecuted within a certain time period or the prosecution will be forever barred. One reason for statutes of limitations is closure, certainty, and repose. This encourages entities such as courts and law enforcement agencies to allocate resources to more timely concerns. The limitations period also permits entities and individuals to conduct their business without fear of being sued for something far in the past. Another reason for statutes of limitations is fairness. Specifically, over time memories fade, evidence is lost or never found, and people prefer to get on with their lives without legal intrusions from the past. This idea is reflected in the various lengths of limitation periods. For example, some crimes such as murder are deemed so horrific they have no limitations period. Other less serious crimes, like misdemeanors, have a short limitations period of two years. However, if due process is delayed, is due process ultimately denied?

I had these thoughts while reading an Associated Press article about the upcoming federal trial of James Ford Seale who is charged with kidnapping and conspiracy charges for the 1964 killings of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in rural southwest Mississippi.

How does society value the re-examination and prosecution of long-dormant cases from an era where racial brutality was common place? Some believe it is "present day business" while others believe it is a "political movement." Will juries be fair? Or will juries believe they are supposed to come back with a certain verdict and apply the law in a certain way - only to appease the political furor over racially motivated crimes? I'd hope the prosecutors are only now bringing Mr. Seale to trial because they have uncovered new witnesses linking him to the crime or developed a new forensic angle on the case, rather than furthering some political movement.

When due process is delayed - due process is often denied. That is, what defense strategy does Seale have? He is entitled, under the United States Constitution, to the best defense his lawyers can provide. Hopefully, defense witnesses are not dead or have not forgotten key facts and details critical to his defense. If convicted, hopefully evidence mitigating to punishment still exists to help Seale prepare the best case possible for the jury.

I hope prosecutors think about these issues when deciding to prosecute decades old murder cases. Even though due process is delayed, it must never be denied.

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