Three of the four postponements in the scheduled trial of a former West Springfield group home care worker charged with assaulting an intellectually disabled man were due to separate scheduling mistakes by court personnel, the prosecutor in the case said last week.
In a phone call on Thursday, Kerry Whalen, an assistant district attorney in Falmouth District Court, who is prosecuting the case against John Saunders, took responsibility for one of the scheduling mistakes and contended that the court clerk’s office was responsible for two others.
We reported that Saunders’ trial had been delayed last week for the fourth time since January, resulting in several fruitless trips from western Massachusetts to the Cape for several prosecution witnesses. Among those witnesses is Sheila Paquette, the sister and co-guardian of the alleged victim, John Burns. Paquette has expressed growing frustration with the delays and had gotten seemingly conflicting answers to her questions about them. The trial has now been scheduled for July 30.
Paquette has been pursing the case against Saunders since June 2010, when Saunders allegedly hit Burns in the face while toileting him during an outing on the Cape. Burns suffered two black eyes and other injuries in the alleged assault. Paquette, who is president of the Advocacy Network, a COFAR member organization, personally filed charges against Saunders in July 2010.
For nearly two years, Paquette has dealt with a state and court system whose progress in bringing about justice in a case involving a disabled victim has seemed glacial. The case has finally reached the trial stage, but the trial never seems to start. The trial was originally scheduled for January 9, but was postponed until March 27 when Saunders failed to appear on the January 9 date, and then was postponed for the second time until June 4 when a defense witness failed to appear on the March 27 date. It was postponed for the third time until June 5, and for the fourth time until July 30.
Whalen said the postponement in March was due to the fact that the defense witness had not been properly notified of the March 27 trial date. She said she personally caused the third postponement in the case when she mistakenly assumed there would be jurors available in the court on June 4th to hear the case. There were no jurors convened that day, requiring a one-day postponement until June 5.
Whalen blamed the fourth postponement in the trial until July 30 again on the court clerk’s office, saying that this time the office failed to issue new summonses to witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense with the new June 5 trial date.
“The clerk’s office failed to do this (notify the witnesses in that instance). I don’t think it was intentional,” Whalen said. The result was that one witness for the defense and one for the prosecution later said they never received any notice of the new trial date and that they wouldn’t be available that day.
I left a message with the court’s clerk magistrate last week to ask if he had a response to Whalen’s account. I haven’t received a call back.
Whalen contended it would be impossible to schedule a new trial date earlier than July 30. I asked her if this case will now be treated as a priority on July 30 because three of the four postponements were the result of the court personnel’s own mismanagement; and I asked whether anyone could guarantee that the trial will go forward at that time.
Whalen’s response was that the Saunders case “will take precedence over other cases,” but there is no way to guarantee it will go forward in July. Because Saunders is out on bail, she said, his case could be subordinated to another case on July 30 if the defendant in that other case happened to be in custody. That is due to rules limiting the length of time defendants can be kept in custody prior to their trials.
Whalen did not apologize for any of the mistakes leading to the postponements of the trial.
Paquette was angry when told of the reasons given by Whalen for the postponements in the case. “This is gross incompetence, a waste of taxpayer dollars,” she said. “I feel like I’m in a foreign country trying to get justice.”