James J. Kilpatrick

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial ... -- Sixth Amendment, U.S. Constitution

The dates are significant:

On Nov. 23, 1977, Jack Humphrey died of a single bullet wound to the head.

On April 11, 1980, two years and four months later, a grand jury in the District Court of Natrona County, Wyo., indicted his wife, Rita Ann, for murder in the first degree. Asserting her innocence, she moved immediately for a preliminary hearing. In a separate motion, she demanded a speedy trial.

On Aug. 22, 1980, after the state failed to establish probable cause, the District Court issued an order dismissing the indictment.

On March 5, 2004, the state suddenly revived the murder charge against her. Roughly 24 years had passed since the original indictment. She again moved to dismiss as a violation of her constitutional right to a speedy trial.

The District Court granted her motion. Judge W. Thomas Sullins noted that during this period, the county sheriff's two investigators had died. Two key witnesses for the defense also had died. The fatal weapon, a .243 Winchester rifle, had disappeared. The victim's watch, thought to be important evidence, was no longer available. Over the years, various audiotapes, transcripts, records and polygraph examinations also had vanished. In a "non-inclusive" list, the judge counted 14 items of lost evidence -- enough to demonstrate that the delay had critically prejudiced the defendant's ability to prepare for trial.

Two months ago the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed. Chief Justice Michael Golden conceded that 24 years and eight months, by his count, had elapsed between the indictment in 1980 and the scheduled trial in 2005. Nevertheless, there had been a long hiatus when Mrs. Humphrey was not in custody and no indictment was actively pending against her. Those 24 years, in the court's view, had to be excluded from the calculation of the "speedy" trial required by the Constitution's Sixth Amendment.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, counsel Michael J. Krampner of Casper, Wyo., relies substantially upon the high court's 1972 opinion in Barker v. Wingo. The case involved the bloody murder of an elderly couple in Christian County, Ky. in 1958.

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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