BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) -- After he was charged with hitting his girlfriend in the face, career criminal Michael Brillon sat in jail without bail for nearly three years, going through six public defenders before being tried for assault.
The delays paid off - for Brillon: A Vermont court threw out his conviction and freed him from prison last spring, saying his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial had been violated.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the case this week, trying to decide if delays caused by public defenders can deprive a criminal defendant of that right. In particular: Whether governments can be blamed for such delays since they're the ones who assign and pay the lawyers for indigent defendants.
Forty states and 15 organizations - state governments, county governments, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a victim's rights' group - are backing the Vermont prosecutor's appeal of the ruling, worried that if it stands criminal suspects will try to game the system and get the result Brillon did.
"You're greasing that slippery slope," said David Parkhurst, an attorney with the National Governors Association, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the prosecutor's appeal. "That's the big concern here."
Brillon, a 46-year-old construction worker whose criminal past includes convictions for sexual assault on a minor, felony obstruction of justice and cocaine possession, was charged with aggravated domestic assault over the 2001 incident with his girlfriend, who was the mother of his child.
Held without bail, his case inched along as lawyer after lawyer asked for postponements and eventually withdrew or was replaced at Brillon's request.
The first got an evidentiary hearing postponed because he was moving his law practice. He was fired by Brillon, who claimed the lawyer had failed to communicate with him.
The second reported a conflict of interest that prevented him from continuing - a day after he'd been appointed.
The third quit after telling a judge Brillon threatened his life during a break in a hearing.
Brillon fired the fourth, and the fifth quit, citing changes to his contract with the state public defender's office.
The sixth took the case to trial in 2004, when Brillon was convicted and sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison because he was a habitual offender with three prior felony convictions.
However, Brillon appealed on the speedy trial claim, and the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in his favor, saying the delays were the fault of the state. The ruling outraged victim's rights' advocates and others, both because Brillon was freed and for fear that other suspects would take his cue, hoping for a similar outcome.
Brillon's current lawyer, whose position has been buttressed by friend-of-the-court briefs by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, acknowledges that Brillon had a role in some of the delays.
Still, says attorney William Nelson, the criminal justice system is primarily responsible.
Brillon was without any appointed counsel at all for six months and was held without bail for nearly three years, despite telling judges he wanted to go to trial, Nelson said.
The U.S. Solicitor General, representing the federal government, has filed a brief denouncing the Vermont ruling and is seeking permission to use 10 minutes of prosecutor Christina Rainville's allotted 30-minute oral argument to make the case for striking down the Brillon ruling.
Maureen Dimino, indigent defense counsel for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said cases like Brillon's will become more common as cash-strapped states cut funding for public defender services, burdening those lawyers with so many cases that they seek more delays to prepare.
"This is going to become a bigger and bigger issue due to the economic crunch. The states are failing to fund these systems, causing these undue delays," she said.