Terror trials head for Virginia 'rocket docket'
The federal courthouse here along Mill Road could be mistaken more for an office building than a house of justice. Absent are the usual neoclassical columns that make you feel like you've stumbled into the Parthenon.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead, the red-brick building is a cubist 10-story high rise, across the street from a condominium complex. The lone distinguishing feature of what goes on inside is a blindfolded statue of justice surrounded by a tortoise and hare, and, more important, an insignia that reads: "Justice delayed, justice denied."
That sentiment, more than anything else, makes the US District Court in this Virginia suburb across the Potomac from Washington one of the most unusual in the country - and this week one of the most visible.
The court's reputation for speedy trials, no-nonsense judges, and tough-on-crime jurors has earned it the nickname the "rocket docket." It's one reason the US Justice Department chose this Virginia venue as the site to prosecute "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, who is scheduled to appear in court here today for a bail hearing, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th Sept. 11 hijacker.
While laws are the same in federal courts throughout the country, values shared among judges or juries in any single jurisdiction can affect - in some cases substantially - how trials proceed. It's part of the human element that makes justice in the United States diverse and not always predictable.
Some federal courts are known for their deft handling of complex financial cases. Others field juries that may yield verdicts more lenient to defendants. Here, efficiency is the top priority. "It's a very efficient, very fast court," says William Dolan, a local lawyer who frequently appears in the court.
Inside, the four judges who dispense justice beneath the court's 22-foot ceilings set trial dates quickly and deny almost all motions for extensions. Unlike other courts in which he appears, Mr. Dolan says the judges bar lawyers from leaving the podium while quizzing witnesses and don't like audio-visual shows that slow trials down. He says he's only gotten two extensions on cases from judges here in 30 years of practice.
As a result, trials that can take two weeks elsewhere may be over in two or three days in Alexandria. In fact, the average criminal trial here takes 5.2 months to conduct - less than half the 13.5 months it takes in Manhattan. The national average is 6.5 months. Plaintiffs in civil cases looking for a fast resolution also favor the Virginia court, which is ranked fourth nationally for moving cases quickly to trial.
Speedy trials can benefit prosecutors, by giving defense lawyers less time to prepare. "Sometimes the case needs time to hatch, to have plea negotiations, to investigate, to think about the case," says Peter Greenspun, a defense attorney in Fairfax, Va.
Yet many lawyers credit the court's judges for running a tight ship that ensures defendants don't languish without a verdict for too long. "It's a very good court," says Michael O'Neill, a law professor at George Mason University here.