Waiting for justice: Defendants locked up for years awaiting trials, sentencing

By Robert Lewis/CalMatters

"Waiting for Justice" Illustration by CalMatters.

For thousands of Californians, the notion of “presumed innocent” has been turned on its head. They’ve waited years in jail without being tried or sentenced. These defendants — along with the victims of crimes — are the human toll of a struggling judicial system.

DeAndre Davis has been waiting 651 days in a Sacramento County jail. Charged with the murder of a 21-year-old man shot during a robbery in 2019, he hasn’t been tried and he hasn’t been sentenced — and he hasn’t even had a preliminary hearing to decide if there’s enough evidence to take him to trial.

For Davis, it’s been an agonizing ordeal made worse by the pandemic. Held without bail because of the severity of the charges, he’s locked down as much as 23 hours a day inside a concrete box as his life outside is crumbling. From his cell, he went through a divorce and lost custody of his 10-year-old daughter, he said.

“I’ve lost so much of my life in here, fighting this case,” said Davis, 37, speaking during a collect call from the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove. “I don’t want to sit in here another year or two.”

Nearly two years of waiting is a different kind of torture for Jennifer Maraston. She’s the mother of Jaquan Wyatt, the man Davis is accused of killing at a Sacramento apartment complex.

“There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t get up and think about my son,” Maraston said.

“Emotionally it takes a toll — the not knowing. I don’t want the case to get to the back of people’s minds. I don't want people to forget this is still going on.”

But justice for Davis and Maraston is many more months, if not years, away.

Davis is one of thousands of men and women throughout California who are stuck for years in county jails without being convicted of any crime. A CalMatters investigation has revealed that at least 1,300 people have been incarcerated in California’s jails longer than three years without being tried or sentenced. 

Of those, 332 people have been waiting in jail for longer than five years, according to CalMatters’ analysis. And one man in Fresno County has been jailed awaiting trial in a double-murder case for nearly 12 years  — 4,269 days since his arrest. 

The reasons for the long delays are myriad: Defense attorneys seek extra time to prepare, prosecutors pursue stiff sentences that lead to extra hearings, and judges struggle to manage their crowded calendars.

The result is a troubling backlog of cases that existed even before the pandemic. Now COVID-19 has pushed the problem to a crisis point. Shuttered courtrooms have delayed hearings, and state emergency orders have allowed judges to waive speedy trial rights and keep pushing back trial dates — all leading to even more time behind bars for people who have been charged but not convicted of a crime.

“The wheels of justice turn very slowly,” said Mariam El-menshawi, director of the California Victims of Crime Resource Center and adjunct professor at the McGeorge School of Law. “With COVID, it’s slowed down the process even more.”

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