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'Good Wife,' Good Law: Is a Speedy Trial Really That Speedy?

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By Andrew Chow, Esq. on April 01, 2013 12:14 PM

This week’s episode of “The Good Wife” showed how quickly the wheels of justice can turn. But were the show’s writers correct about a defendant’s right to a speedy trial?

Recap: ‘The Wheels of Justice’

In “The Wheels of Justice,” Alicia’s client Colin Sweeney (“a psychopath who’s lucky he didn’t get convicted for killing his wife,” as the judge tells Alicia) is back. This time, he’s facing a criminal charge over an alleged shooting at a private club.

But when Alicia learns that the Illinois Supreme Court is about to issue a ruling — one that could make Sweeney’s conviction a “third strike” that sends him to prison for life — she quickly demands a “speedy trial,” hoping for a verdict before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

She gets her “speedy trial” the very next day. But is that how the right to a speedy trial really works?

Reality Check: Speedy Trial Statutes

When deciding whether to invoke her client's right to a speedy trial, Alicia first asks Cary, "Are we past 160 days?"

That question refers to Illinois' "speedy trial" statute which states, "Every person on bail ... shall be tried by the court having jurisdiction within 160 days from the date defendant demands trial."

Illinois' "speedy trial" statute does allow for some exceptions, however. For example, the 160-day limit can be extended if the defendant causes some sort of delay in proceedings, or it can be waived altogether if the defendant fails to show up at a court date.

Also, if a court finds that prosecutors did their best, but still failed to obtain evidence that's key to the case, an extension of up to 60 days (or 120 days if it's DNA evidence) may be allowed.

Since assistant DA Laura was obviously not prepared for Sweeney's unexpectedly "speedy" trial, she likely could have received an extension. But obviously, that wouldn't have made the episode as exciting.

Closing Arguments:

Though most states have "speedy trial" statutes on the books, not all do. In states without such laws, the Constitution's general guarantee of a speedy trial comes into play; whether a trial is "speedy" enough is determined by the facts of each particular case. There's also a federal Speedy Trial Act for defendants facing federal charges.

So, looks like there is constitutional speedy, and TV speedy. What else is new?

What did you think of this week's episode of "The Good Wife"? Is the show guilty of making any legal mistakes? Check back here for more legal recaps of "The Good Wife," and send us a tweet @FindLawConsumer with the hashtag #TheGoodWife.

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