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Editorial: Fix the federal courts

There are reasons to believe that Tyrone Pennick is no Boy Scout. It’s possible, after the due process to which all Americans are entitled, that he will be found guilty of serious drug crimes and sentenced to time in prison.

But he’s not getting due process. What he appears to be getting is the same kind of unlawful treatment that recently led to the early release of another Western New Yorker also charged – and ultimately convicted – of a drug crime.

The causes – which may include both prosecutorial abuse and congressional indifference – are ultimately irrelevant. Our justice system guarantees defendants the right to a speedy trial. Eight years’ confinement without the government even attempting to prove its case doesn’t meet the test. If Pennick is innocent of the high-level cocaine-dealing charges he faces, then his liberty has been stolen from him. If he is guilty, then appellate courts could be forced to free a man who belongs in prison.

Whether the problem is in the office of prosecutors or the U.S. Senate, it needs to be fixed. This game is dangerous.

The two cases – as well as two others involving murder counts – all involve federal criminal charges. In November, Joseph Tigano was freed from a 20-year prison sentence when an appeals court reversed his conviction. The reason: Tigano had spent seven years behind bars before being brought to trial as a big-league marijuana farmer.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny dismissed murder charges against two Buffalo men who had been held in custody for 72 months. Given the serious nature of the charges and the men’s previous felony convictions, Skretny ordered them into home detention while the government appealed his ruling. Nevertheless, men charged with homicide could go free because the government violated their rights to a speedy trial.

Now it’s Pennick. He’s been in custody for eight years. Two were served in home detention and the rest behind bars. Prosecutors originally charged him, along with 24 other people, in connection with an East Side drug ring. Two years ago, while on home confinement, court papers say that Erie County Sheriff’s investigators found cocaine, nearly $50,000 in cash and equipment commonly used to distribute cocaine. Pennick was ordered back to jail.

Separately, but too coincidental for comfort, a 30-year-old Buffalo woman with a reported connection to Pennick was killed. Geneva Smith was charged with possessing two containers of cocaine after leaving Pennick’s home. She eventually won pretrial release. A few months later, she was murdered at her home. Police are investigating.

The charges are serious, but so are the questions surrounding the delays. They go to the heart of the American system of criminal justice and suggest one or both of two factors: Prosecutors are dragging their feet before mounting cases or the courts can’t handle the caseloads.

Indeed, staffing has been a long-standing problem as the Senate, which must confirm federal judicial appointments, stubbornly ties itself in political knots instead of ensuring that the courts are able to perform their critical tasks.

Whatever the cause, criminal suspects are being denied their rights and people who may be dangerous could be released into the community. The system is failing all of Western New York.