Judgement states attorney negligence on behalf of prosecutor caused delays that violated defendant’s right to speedy trial.
Aaron Fisher, who confessed to sodomizing his infant daughter, was set free this week due to a judge’s ruling which points to a systemic problem in the Lake of the Ozarks region’s justice system, resulting in citizens being held for excessive time while awaiting trial.
Fisher will not stand trial for the crime he confessed to—and had previously pleaded guilty to—due to Cole County, Missouri Judge Patricia Joyce’s ruling, unless Miller County Prosecuting Attorney Ben Winfrey is successful in appealing the decision and having it heard in the court of appeals.
LakeExpo.com staff obtained an unsigned copy of Joyce’s decision from an anonymous source, in which she spelled out her reasoning for letting Fisher go.
In her decision, Joyce referenced the “Prosecutor’s negligence,” and a 26th Circuit court system that, with only two judges, “has failed defendants over and over.”
Former Miller County Prosecutor Matt Howard concurred that trials can be tricky to schedule in the 26th Circuit, with only two judges covering five counties. In a normal year, he told LakeExpo.com, it might be possible to schedule six major felony trials in Miller County. Likely half of those, he said, would experience delay, whether attributable to the state or the defense.
The first half of Joyce’s written opinion on the case tracked closely with the arguments for dismissal made by the defense. On Sept. 16, 2015, Fisher’s state-appointed attorney Jason Emmons made the motion to dismiss the case, due to an alleged violation of Fisher’s right to a speedy trial.
Joyce criticized Winfrey—who inherited the five-year-old case when he took office at the beginning of 2015—saying, “[O]nce newly elected prosecuting attorney Ronnie Benjamin Winfrey took office, the State once again was derelict in its duties to bring Mr. Fisher to trial… Then on October 15, 2015 when this motion was heard, Mr. Winfrey failed to make any argument, instead allowed newly appointed counsel to misrepresent to the Court that the Defendant had made numerous requests for continuances when in fact the State could only point to one such request for continuance on May 23, 2011.”
In opposing the motion to dismiss, Winfrey’s office had submitted the only known document that shows a continuance requested by the defense. It was a transcript of a pre-trial conference, on May 23, 2011, just before the commencement of a trial, which had been accelerated due to a handwritten speedy trial petition submitted by Fisher from jail without the assistance of an attorney. In the transcript, Fisher voices his assent to the delay and agrees with the judge that in so doing, he is waiving his right to a speedy trial. His then-defense attorney Keith Halcomb spoke up after that, saying Fisher was not waiving his right to a speedy trial but was simply agreeing to the delay caused by that continuance request.
Many other continuances were requested by the defense, according to former prosecutor Matt Howard, but there is not any documentation to show it. Miller County Circuit Clerk staff confirmed many interactions in the courtroom are not recorded. Howard told LakeExpo.com that specific interaction on May 23 had been transcribed by a court reporter because Judge Stan Moore wanted to ensure Fisher’s waiving of his right to a speedy trial and assent to the delay was recorded.
Joyce excoriated Howard in her judgment, saying, “This case was first set for trial January 10, 2011. Since that time, ‘then’ Prosecuting Attorney Matthew Howard has blatantly disregarded the United States Constitution and Missouri Constitution in that he had at least 6 trial settings over a 5 year period and failed to bring any type of justice to the County of Miller. Over this 5 year period, Matthew Howard allowed this case to decay.”
Howard and Winfrey have since contended Joyce misunderstood the source of the delays. She was placed on the case in early 2015—five years into the proceedings—after both 26th circuit judges, Stan Moore and Kenneth Hayden, recused themselves.
Responding to Joyce’s decision, Winfrey said, “The Judge glossed over the many plea hearings which were cancelled and [Fisher’s] withdraw of a plea which caused considerable delays – in addition to his continuance the day of trial.”
In July of 2014, Fisher had pleaded guilty and confessed to sodomizing his infant daughter. But at his sentencing hearing in November, he said he did not really remember the events of that day in 2009, so his plea was set aside. In the following months, both Hayden and Moore recused themselves, and the case was reassigned to Joyce.
In the penultimate paragraph of Joyce’s opinion, she wrote, “This court does not and will not begin to choose which defendant or which defendant’s rights it will stand for. The courts have a duty to uphold the rights of every citizen in the United States and Missouri no matter the cause. Without the right to a speedy and fair trial, defendants charged with crimes would be allowed to rot in the wallows of our jail system forcing them to make a choice to plead to something they did not do or roll the dice after evidence good and bad has spoiled. Otherwise, citizens could be held against their will, for excessive amounts of time, without regard to whether they matter. This Order does not pick, choose, or discriminate against any citizen’s rights. Instead, this Order stands for the United States Constitution and the Missouri Constitution.”
Originally posted on LakeExpo.com by Nathan Bechtold.
Attorney Negligence Representation – Ball & Bonholtzer Trial Attorney – Los Angeles