QuestionHow long does it really take to reach a verdict for a crime?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. We asked criminal defense attorneys and former DAs how long it takes to reach a verdict, and if the Law & Order timeline stands up to reality.
We're a nation obsessed with crime—true, fictional, and perhaps things in between—thanks to the explosion of "Serial" and myriad evening crime dramas like Law & Order and CSI. We're used to seeing things solved in little more than an hour, with an "A" story weaving gracefully into a "B" story. The crime is committed, and the suspect escapes as the team works furiously, haplessly to catch him. At around 45 minutes in (with commericals), that one missing piece of evidence or unlikely suspicion finally connects, and at the hour mark, things are once again (mostly) well.
In reality, the length of time it takes to reach a verdict can vary from the timeline depicted in a Law & Order episode to months, or even years. How long does it take to indict someone for a crime? How long does it take to reach a verdict? We spoke to top criminal defense lawyers and law professors to find out.
Lawyer for Alameda County Public Defender, Adjunct Professor at Berkeley School of Law
In a drug case, things typically happen very quickly. The police officer comes in, testifies before a grand jury, and in the grand jury proceeding there is no right to a defense counsel. The officer gets up and testifies, and then the prosecutor asks the grand jurors “Do you think this was selling drugs?” and then they vote. If they vote that it’s true, that becomes the indictment and that person is charged.
In California, we typically have a two day limit that a person has to go to court within two court days of their arrest. That means if you’re arrested on Monday, you have to be in court by Wednesday, and the judge has to make a determination of probable cause by that time. If you’re arrested on Friday night, however, you don’t have to be in court till Tuesday because it’s court days.
So, say they don’t bring you to court within two court days, what do you get? Well, you can sue the police department, but that’s about it. Overarching all of this is the statute of limitations from when the crime was committed; you have to be charged within a certain period of time, and that varies from state to state. In California, for a misdemeanor it’s one year, and for most lower level felonies, it’s three years. For more serious crimes, it’s typically an eight year statute of limitation.
Those shows assume that none of this stuff goes through a bureaucracy, when, in fact, that’s really all it goes through. There’s a strong bureaucratic aspect to things, especially in big cities which is typically where those shows are set. The prosecution also has a significant bureaucracy, so there are lots of instances where cases fall through the cracks.
A lot of times, it’s negligence or accidental. That’s the first thing, I think there’s this idea that the crime is committed and the police immediately go out there and do all of their investigation with great alacrity, and they hurry over to the DA’s office and get the person charged—and that’s all done right away.
That process may take days or weeks or months, or even longer than that. The second thing that strikes me is that there’s an attitude that all of the investigation is done, but nothing could be further from the truth. In big cities—and this goes back to the bureaucratic aspect of things—the police typically investigate only so long as they need to pick a person to charge for the crime, and gather enough evidence to give the prosecutor probable cause. They don’t ever necessarily go back and take a closer look at it.
They also don’t make an effort to develop any evidence that might help the defense, so, for example, they don’t always get the surveillance tapes which might show who the actual culprit was, or they don’t follow up on leads involving other suspects or alibi witnesses. A lot of times it’s because they just don’t have time. Sometimes it’s because they don’t really have any urge to do that, but a lot of times, it’s just because they don’t have time. Those are the two biggest things I see—also that the whole case is investigated before any effort to charge the client is made.
Top crimes committed in the U.S. per total population of 318,857,056
Source: FBI "Crime in the United States, 2014"
Criminal Defense Attorney, former Assistant DA for firearms trafficking at Brooklyn District Attorney's Office
In New York, the timing of when you get indicted depends on a few key factors. The first factor is most obvious: have you been arrested? If you have not been arrested yet, you can still be under investigation and indicted without any time limits applying (except statutes of limitation, of course). For example, if narcotics detectives are surveilling a drug dealer, and have an undercover officer buy from him a few times, the DA can go to the grand jury and get an indictment against the dealer without him ever knowing he was being investigated. This is sometimes called a "silent indictment."
If you have been arrested, then the timing of your indictment depends on your bail status. Under New York's Criminal Procedure Law section 180.80, if a defendant is incarcerated (i.e. hasn't made bail) the DA has exactly six days from the time of arrest to obtain an indictment. If the defendant is released on his own recognizance, or makes bail within the first six days, there is no time limit for the indictment, but the DA still has to abide by the Speedy Trial time limits and, at the very least, bring an indictment within six months.
Technically under the law, a defendant would need to be indicted within 6 months. CPL 30.30 gives the DA 6 months to be ready for trial on a felony case. If there's no indictment in that time, the case certainly cannot proceed to trial and must be dismissed as a matter of law.
The longest case I can remember being involved in took about three years before we finally discovered new evidence, and the case was dismissed. There's really no way to generalize how long a case will take. I don't think that it is solely dependent on the type of case. I think it has a lot more to do with the complexity of the case, the strength of the case, the DA's willingness to plea bargain, and the Defendant's willingness to plead guilty.
Attorney at Andrew Mancilla Law, specializes in complex white collar and criminal defense, civil litigation and entertainment law
The state prosecutes generally reactively—a robbery takes place, an assault takes place, then the police are called and they show up. It’s reactive; something happens, charges are filed, then it’s investigated. What happens with federal crimes, which is any sort of crime that has a nexus to other states, then you have a proactive investigation. You generally have a grand jury meet for a number of months, and they’re presented evidence, and it takes course over a long period of time. Or the FBI, or whatever special agents are on the case, investigate the case over a number of months. Sometimes you’ll be wiretapping, sometimes you’ll have somebody—rats, snitches—working for the government go and infiltrate the corrupt organization or the organized crime family or whatever it may be, and collect evidence on the part of the feds. That takes a long time. The feds usually conduct those investigations over a number of months, sometimes a number of years.
For the state, that’s different. Very rarely do you get a proactive investigation that takes place over the course of a number of months, then the arrest happens. What usually happens is a crime takes place, an arrest happens, then a grand jury indicts. In state court in regards to any sort of state crime, it’s reactive. You’ll have a crime committed, you’ll have an assault—say someone punches somebody on the street—cops show up, arrest the defendant, they bring him down. If it’s a very bad crime, then he gets indicted. The prosecutor will present the evidence to a grand jury, and there are different time limits for that.
Honestly, Law & Order isn’t that far-fetched. Things happen quickly. Perhaps people assume a lot because it goes scene to scene, but in the scheme of things, a lot of that stuff is fairly on point. Things do happen very quickly, but it always depends on the crime. Sometimes you’ll get cases where it’s so clear the evidence is overwhelming against the defendant, and you can work out a plea without getting indicted. Maybe the defendant comes from a good background, never committed a crime in the past; there’s mitigating circumstances, so you can talk to the procesutor before he’s actually indicted, or he gets arrested but none of the evidence is presented to the grand jury, and within a few days we can agree we’ll work out a plea here, so why don’t we wait on defending to a grand jury. You can sometimes kick it a month down the road. I’ve got a number of cases where the defendant was arrested on a felony complaint almost a year ago, and we’re still in talks to negotiate some sort of a plea.
Misdemeanor - Usually defined as a crime punishable by up to a year in jail time.
Felony - Usually defined by the fact that they are punishable by prison sentences of greater than one year.
Statute of Limitations - A law which forbids prosecutors from charging someone with a crime that was committed more than a specified number of years ago.
180.80 - Refers to Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”) Section 180.80, which states that there must be a preliminary hearing or grand jury action taken by the DA within 120 hours of arrest (within 5 days or 144 hours if there is a weekend or holiday occurring during confinement).
30.30 - Also known as “statutory speedy trial,” 30.30 requires that the prosecution establish its readiness for trial on an “offense” within a specific codified time period after a criminal action has taken place.
James W. Magee, Esq.
Lawyer at Law Offices of James W. Magee, Esq., Former DA for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office
[To indict the suspect for] political corruption, a year or more. Let’s say it's a big drug bust where they want to do warrants, six weeks.
There’s a big political corruption trial that’s going on Tuesday. The guy is the former head of the New York State Democratic Party. Who knows when that investigation started? It could have started four or five years ago. But it’s on trial right now. And the trial will probably be about six weeks, and they’re planning on having a verdict sometime before Christmas.
The longest one I did was 5 years. But you have to understand, it depends on whether the person is out of jail or in jail, because all the cases where the guy’s in jail waiting for trial are rushed along. If they were in jail, it would usually take no more than 18 months from when I filed the indictment to verdict.