The criminal case of Susan Van Note, the Lee’s Summit lawyer who is accused of killing her rich father and his younger, attractive girlfriend in order to get his money is one of those stories that reporters and the public love.
It’s compelling from every angle. The Star’s Don Bradley was poised to cover the trial, which would have had tremendous readership, but, unfortunately, the judge had to declare a mistrial Tuesday because some prospective jurors were overheard discussing the case during a break outside the courtroom.
One facet of the mistrial really caught my attention and exasperated me: Everyone connected with the case is ready to get on with the trial as soon as possible, except the judge.
The Star reported that Judge Kenneth Hayden “said his own calendar is full through 2016.”
Through 2016? The next 18 months?
Hayden is presiding judge in Laclede County — Lebanon, MO — which is south of the Lake of the Ozarks. The murders occurred at the Lake of the Ozarks in Camden County, but the trial was moved to Laclede, on a change of venue.)
Let me put this simply: Judge Hayden’s assertion that he is busy through next year is preposterous.
It has always driven me crazy when judges moan and groan about their backbreaking “caseloads.” Here’s how it works: Indeed, they often have cases and related matters, like motions, scheduled for months out, but very few of those cases actually come off as scheduled. The majority of cases, in virtually every court at every level, are settled, dismissed or delayed. Same thing for motions and related matters.
The scheduling of trials and related matters is like dental appointments in this respect: They’re on the books, but the dentist can count on holes cropping up regularly in his or her schedule.
The difference, however, is that dentists only get paid if they work, and so they scramble to fill the holes that inevitably pop up in their schedules.
But in my experience — I covered the Jackson County Courthouse for seven years in the 1970s and have watched courts ever since — many judges don’t move aggressively to fill the gaps when cases fall through. I want to emphasize that it isn’t this way with all judges, but with many: Since they’re getting paid and report to virtually no one, they’re in no hurry to fill the gaps.
Here’s another thing: Laclede County has a population of 35,000. If Judge Hayden’s schedule is booked solid for the next 18 months, it’s not with any cases of the magnitude of the Van Note case.
I’d bet just about anything that Hayden could try the Van Note case within the next month. He might have to move a few things around, but how hard can that be? Not much more difficult than rescheduling those dental appointments, I would imagine.
Some lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants might be disappointed that their cases were delayed a bit, but this is a five-year-old murder case. The murders occurred Oct. 2, 2010, and it is in the public interest that this case get going as soon as possible.
In criminal cases, delays almost always works to the advantage of defendants, and here we have a woman who probably shot two people to death.
Susan Van Note needs to be tried right away.
My guess, from reading about the judge’s claim that he’s booked for a year and a half, is that he simply doesn’t want to hear the case. It’s a high-visibility case; it will attract a lot of media; and the judge would be under a lot of pressure. He’d probably prefer to lie low and handle the penny ante stuff that comes across the transom in Laclede County.
But somebody needs to hear this case soon; it cannot wait until 2017. That’s ridiculous.