Boyer v. Louisiana

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Oral argument: 
January 14, 2013

The State of Louisiana indicted Jonathan Edward Boyer for the murder of Bradlee Marsh in 2002, but the case did not proceed to trial until 2009. The trial resulted in Boyer’s conviction, and a state appellate court affirmed. Boyer now argues before the Supreme Court that Louisiana violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Specifically, Boyer alleges that five years of delay were caused entirely by Louisiana’s failure to fund his appointed, capitally-certified counsel and that this funding failure should be weighed against the state. Louisiana counters that Boyer has no constitutional right to capitally-certified counsel and that Boyer, not the State, is responsible for the delay. In resolving the question presented, the Supreme Court will determine whether a state’s failure to fund appointed, specially-qualified counsel for an indigent capital defendant should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes. The decision may substantially affect indigent defendants’ constitutional rights as well as state procedures for providing indigent capital defense.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether a state’s failure to fund counsel for an indigent defendant for five years, particularly where failure was the direct result of the prosecution’s choice to seek the death penalty, should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes?

Issue

Whether the State of Louisiana’s five-year failure to fund appointed, specially-qualified counsel for an indigent defendant in a capital case should be weighed against the State for speedy trial purposes?

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Facts

On February 4, 2002, petitioner Jonathan Edward Boyer allegedly murdered Bradlee Marsh during an armed robbery in Sulphur, Louisiana. Boyer provided a confession to the police, his family members made statements implicating him in the crime, and police found Boyer’s fingerprints at the crime scene. However, William Gallier, an individual with no connection to Boyer, identified different killers in a statement made before Marsh’s murder became public. Additionally, portions of Boyer’s confession did not match the physical evidence. Boyer also has a history of mental and emotional instability and an I.Q. on the borderline of intellectual disability.

On June 6, 2002, the State of Louisiana indicted Boyer for first degree murder, a capital offense. Louisiana court rules mandate that capitally-charged indigent defendants be appointed two capitally-certified counsel; there is no requirement for specially-qualified counsel for non-capital charges. The capitally-certified counsel must receive adequate funding, appropriated by the state legislature.

In accordance with the Louisiana court rules, the State appointed Boyer capitally-certified counsel, but a “funding crisis” prevented the State from funding Boyer’s counsel for five years and proceeding to trial. During this time, Boyer’s counsel motioned for a hearing to determine a funding source. After granting several continuances at the request of both the State and Boyer, the trial court eventually heard the motion, but never ruled on it. The trial court also denied a motion to quash that Boyer filed soon after the three-year state statutory speedy-trial period expired.

On May 21, 2007, the State reduced Boyer’s charge from first degree murder to second degree murder, a non-capital offense, thereby eliminating the need for capitally-certified counsel and thus the funding obstacle. On the same date, the State also arraigned Boyer on the charge of armed robbery with a firearm. Over the next two years, Boyer filed over thirty motions and the court deemed him incompetent to stand trial for a nine-month period. In September 2009, Boyer’s case finally reached jury trial, resulting in convictions for both the second degree murder and armed robbery charges. The trial court sentenced Boyer to life imprisonment without parole for second degree murder and to 104 years imprisonment for armed robbery.

Boyer appealed his convictions on numerous grounds, including violations of his statutory and constitutional speedy-trial rights. In particular, Boyer alleged the seven-year delay between his original indictment and trial, during which the State held him in jail without bond, caused his mental deterioration and the loss of witnesses, including William Gallier, thereby prejudicing his defense. The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed Boyer’s convictions and sentences, and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Boyer’s petition for a writ of certiorari. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case, limited to the question of whether Louisiana’s failure to fund Boyer’s capitally-certified counsel for five years should be weighed against the State for speedy trial purposes.

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Discussion

This case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to consider whether a state’s five-year failure to fund appointed, specially-qualified counsel for an indigent defendant in a capital case should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes. Boyer argues that Louisiana denied him a speedy trial by not funding his defense. Louisiana counters that Boyer is responsible for the delays. The Supreme Court’s resolution of the question presented implicates indigent capital defendants’ constitutional rights and states’ obligations to these defendants.

The Constitutional Rights of Indigent Capital Defendants

The Constitution Project emphasizes that all criminal defendants, including the indigent, have Sixth Amendment rights to a speedy trial and the assistance of counsel. In capital cases, the Constitution Project asserts, defendants have the constitutional right to appointed counsel with heightened duties. These duties include establishing a relationship with the defendant, assembling a comprehensive defense team, conducting thorough investigations for both the guilt and penalty phases of trial, and asserting all viable legal claims. The Constitution Project argues that without adequate funding, capital defense counsel cannot fulfill their obligations and ensure their clients’ constitutional rights.

The State of Louisiana contends that even though it appoints two specially-qualified counsel to capital defendants, these defendants have no such constitutional right. Additionally, the State cautions against expansive interpretations of constitutional rights that would result in the “unsatisfactorily severe remedy of dismissal” for speedy trial violations. In other words, the State warns against constitutional interpretations that could set guilty defendants free.

The Obligations of States to Indigent Capital Defendants

The Constitution Project argues that states have the obligation to adequately fund counsel for indigent capital defendants. Without adequate state funding, the Constitution Project reasons, capital defense counsel cannot fulfill their duties, thereby compromising their clients’ constitutional rights and depriving their clients of fundamental fairness and justice. Budget deficiencies, the Constitution Project asserts, are no excuse. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) believes that not weighing a state’s capital defense funding failures against it for speedy trial purposes encourages states to abdicate their constitutional obligations to indigent capital defendants.

Louisiana counters that it has no obligation to fund capitally-certified counsel for indigent defendants. The State asserts that its provision of two specially-qualified attorneys to indigent capital defendants serves “important public interests” and exceeds constitutional requirements. Louisiana reasons that efforts to obtain funding for capitally-certified counsel that cause delay are justified and that weighing such delay against the state would discourage the provision of specially-qualified counsel as well as the use of the death penalty in appropriate cases. Louisiana further explains that capital defendants can proceed with competent, fully-funded, non-special appointed counsel if obtaining funding for capitally-certified counsel would cause unwanted delay.

In sum, this case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to determine whether a state’s five-year failure to fund capitally-certified counsel should be weighed against it for speedy trial purposes. The Court’s ruling may substantially affect indigent defendants’ constitutional rights as well as state procedures for providing indigent capital defense.

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Analysis

Boyer argues that Louisiana denied him a speedy trial by not funding his indigent defense. Louisiana responds that Boyer is responsible for the delays and that even if the State were responsible, Boyer’s speedy-trial claim would apply only to the murder charge and not the armed-robbery charge.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants’ right to a speedy trial. Courts examine four factors when considering a Sixth Amendment speedy-trial claim: (1) the length of the delay, (2) the reason for the delay, (3) the defendant’s assertion of the right, and (4) the prejudice to the defendant.

Did the State or Boyer Cause the Delay?

The main point of contention between the parties is whether the State or Boyer caused the trial’s delay. Boyer argues that Louisiana caused his trial’s delay because the State failed to fund his indigent defense. Boyer notes that in Vermont v. Brillon, the Supreme Court expressly acknowledged that “[d]elay resulting from a systematic ‘breakdown in the public defender system,’ could be charged to the state,” and argues that the Louisiana legislature’s failure to fund its indigent-defense system constitutes such a breakdown. Furthermore, Boyer argues that the State’s discretionary decision to pursue a capital-murder charge also led to his trial’s delay. Louisiana court rules mandate that capitally-charged defendants be appointed two capitally-certified counsel; no such requirement exists for non-capital charges. Boyer contends that the prosecutor’s decision to pursue capital charges, which obliged the court to assign two capitally-certified counsel, coupled with the State’s failure to fund its indigent-defense system, denied him his right to a speedy trial.

Boyer also contends that the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal erred by only considering matters that were within the control of the local prosecuting attorney. Boyer argues that under Smith v. Hooey, Louisiana cannot insulate itself from the obligation to provide a speedy trial by assigning the responsibility to a local prosecutor; that obligation rests on the State. Thus, Boyer argues that the State ultimately bears responsibility for his delayed trial.

Louisiana responds that Boyer is responsible for the delay of his trial and that he did not effectively assert his right to a speedy trial. Louisiana notes that the right to a speedy trial is unlike other constitutionally protected rights because failing to assert it may advantage the defendant. Louisiana contends that Boyer’s actions establish a pattern of avoidance that indicates Boyer intentionally delayed his trial in order to have the charges dismissed. As evidence of this tactic, Louisiana highlights the many continuance motions filed by Boyer that delayed the funding hearing and notes that Boyer waited to assert his speedy-trial right until immediately after the three-year statutory speedy-trial period had run. According to Louisiana, had Boyer allowed the funding hearing to take place as originally scheduled and the trial court held that no funds were available, the State would have been able to reduce the charges in order to allow the trial to proceed, thus vindicating Boyer’s speedy-trial right. Instead, Louisiana contends that Boyer may have intentionally delayed his trial to foreclose the possibility of a speedy trial.

Louisiana further asserts that there are public-interest reasons that justify the delay. Relying on United States v. Loud Hawk, Louisiana argues that absent a showing of bad faith, important government interests may justify delay. Louisiana cites its decision to voluntarily provide indigent defendants in capital cases with two capitally-certified counsel as an important public interest. Louisiana argues that efforts to obtain funding for these specially qualified counsel constitute valid, good-faith reasons justifying delay.

Application of the Remaining Barker Factors

Boyer’s trial delay was over seven years, with five years without an effective appointment of counsel. Looking to the Court’s decisions in Barker v. Wingo and Doggett v. United States and the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal’s determination in the proceedings below, Boyer argues that such a long period is presumptively prejudicial. Boyer also notes that two years is the maximum period within which a second-degree murder case must be brought to trial.

Boyer further contends that he properly and aggressively asserted his right to a speedy trial. Boyer notes that he timely filed a motion to quash immediately following the expiration of the three-year prescriptive period, appealed the trial court’s denial of that motion, and attempted to again raise his speedy-trial right before and during trial. Louisiana responds that Boyer waited to raise his speedy-trial right until after the statutory period had run, suggesting that Boyer intentionally delayed only to opportunistically claim that his right to a speedy trial had been violated.

Finally, Boyer claims that he experienced personal hardship and that his defense was prejudiced by the delay. Boyer claims that he deteriorated mentally and physically as a result of his lengthy pretrial detention, which rendered him incompetent to stand trial and unable to aid in his own defense. Boyer contends that the detention also prejudiced his defense because several witnesses died or disappeared during the period of delay. Furthermore, Boyer argues that the delay made it particularly difficult to assess his mental health at the time of the crime or of his statement to the police. Citing the finding of the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal, the State responds that Boyer was not prejudiced by the delay, asserting that Boyer’s lost witness, Mr. Gallier, had made inconsistent statements that were contradicted by other witnesses and later recanted by Mr. Gallier himself. Thus, Louisiana argues that Mr. Gallier’s testimony would not likely have aided Boyer’s defense. Furthermore, Louisiana argues that whatever Mr. Gallier’s testimony, it could not have overcome the strong evidence of Boyer’s guilt, such as the statements of Boyer’s family, the physical evidence linking Boyer to the scene, and Boyer’s confession.

Does the Speedy-Trial Claim Apply to All Charges?

Finally, Louisiana argues that even if a speedy-trial violation occurred in this case, it would apply only to the murder charge and not to the armed-robbery charge. Relying upon United States v. Marion and analogizing from the Speedy Trial Act, Louisiana argues that the Sixth Amendment’s speedy-trial clause should be interpreted as “offense specific.” Under this interpretation, Louisiana asserts that the prescriptive period for the armed-robbery charge did not begin to run when Boyer was initially charged with capital murder; rather, it began after the funding question had already been rendered moot. Thus, Louisiana argues that even if Boyer were to prevail on his speedy-trial claim, his 104-year sentence for armed robbery would still stand. Boyer does not address this argument in his brief.

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Conclusion

This case will determine whether a state’s five-year failure to fund appointed, specially-qualified counsel for an indigent capital defendant should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes. Boyer argues that Louisiana had an obligation to fund his appointed, capitally-certified counsel and that the State’s funding failures should be weighed against it. Louisiana counters that Boyer has no constitutional right to capitally-certified counsel and that Boyer is responsible for the delay to proceed to trial. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case may substantially affect the constitutional rights of indigent capital defendants as well as the procedures that states use for providing indigent capital defense.

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