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ACLU Maine calls on Legislature to adopt speedy trial rules after Supreme Judicial Court ruling

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is calling on Augusta to strengthen the laws guaranteeing the right to a speedy trial.

The call comes after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court remanded the case of Dennis Winchester back to the lower court in late March. Justices determined that the post-conviction review court incorrectly analyzed Winchester's claim that he was denied his right to a speedy trial because of ineffective counsel.

The ruling emphasized that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure a defendant has a speedy trial. But it also advised that the Legislature should consider adopting clear guidelines on how long that process should take.

"It doesn't adopt a specific time deadline for when a person needs to be brought to trial," said Carol Garvan, the legal director of ACLU Maine. "But at the same time, it acknowledges that the Legislature does have a role if it wants to look at and adopt clear guidance, more specific time deadlines to guide the speedy trial analysis."

Garvan said the ruling should be kept in mind when a bill defining pre-trial detention limits and speedy trial timelines comes before the Legislature later this session. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland, has yet to be printed.

Maine is one of the few states that does not have a statutory time limit for a speedy trial. It has also been struggling to address a backlog of criminal cases that have yet to be heard. It's estimated that backlog could take years to chip away at.

Winchester is incarcerated at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren. He was charged in several burglaries and thefts in Aroostook County and convicted in one case in 2015. Six other charges filed at the same time were not taken up by the state until he had served out his first sentence in 2017.

If the lower court overturns his case, Winchester will be released from prison. His sentence is up in 2025.

Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.