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Jail Lockdown Spurs Legal Concerns

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The Richmond Jail's norovirus-inspired lockdown might have been messy, but it could have been worse.

The gastrointestinal nightmare could have triggered a deluge of complaints and legal action from inmates complaining that their right to a speedy trial had been violated.

The state statute guaranteeing a speedy trial for accused criminals at the jail, many of whom also face charges in the counties, has no specific language allowing for trial delays because of health-related lockdowns.

The code makes exceptions for acts of God, natural disasters and civil disorder, but that language speaks only to witnesses that might be prevented from attending trial, and not defendants, says Kenneth Nickels, senior deputy commonwealth's attorney for Chesterfield County.

"There certainly is not a specific exception," Henrico County Commonwealth's Attorney Wade Kiser says. "However, there's several court decisions interpreting it that say it's not an all-inclusive list. I can't imagine a court would dismiss a case … when this is the situation."

"But," he adds, "never say never."

To avoid uncertainty, local prosecutors are considering asking the General Assembly to amend the state code. They want to ensure that health scares don't provide criminals with a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"The safest thing to do would be to have an exception in the code that would recognize this kind of occurrence," Kiser says.

Otherwise, Nickels says, "the potential is there for problems."

Potential very well could have turned kinetic in Richmond last week, according to Richmond Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Learned Barry, who oversees homicide trials for the city.

"The good thing about this is it came just at the end of our normal docket period," Barry says. As a result, no further court dates were scheduled until March 7, beyond when he expects the jail lockdown to end. "And we got all of our murder trials out of the way last Wednesday."

Had time not been on their side, Barry says, "It would have been a disaster. This sort of issue [works] against the commonwealth — not the defendant."

None of the three localities expects last week's lockdown to jeopardize current cases, but a longer lockdown in the future due to a similar — or worse — health scare could present problems.

"One continuance and we're bumped up against speedy trial," Barry says. "It would be easier if we had a law." S

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