United States v. Donald

Decision Date01 May 1978
Docket NumberNo. 75-1892,75-1892
Citation98 S.Ct. 1547,435 U.S. 850,56 L.Ed.2d 18
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Jeffrey R. MacDONALD
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

A defendant may not, before trial, appeal a federal district court's order denying his motion to dismiss an indictment because of an alleged violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Pp. 853-863.

4th Cir., 531 F.2d 196, reversed and remanded.

Kenneth S. Geller, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Bernard L. Segal, San Francisco, Cal., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether a defendant, before trial, may appeal a federal district court's order denying his motion to dismiss an indictment because of an alleged violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.1


In February 1970, respondent Jeffrey R. MacDonald was a physician in military service stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He held the rank of captain in the Army Medical Corps.

Captain MacDonald's wife and their two daughters were murdered on February 17 at respondent's quarters. Respondent also sustained injury on that occasion. The military police, the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Fayetteville, N. C., Police Department all immediately began investigations of the crime. On April 6 the CID informed respondent that he was under suspicion and, that same day, he was relieved of his duties and restricted to quarters. On May 1, pursuant to Art. 30 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U.S.C. § 830, the Army charged respondent with the murders. As required by Art. 32 of the UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 832, an investigating officer was appointed to investigate the crimes and to recommend whether the charges (three specifications of murder, in violation of Art. 118 of the UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 918) should be referred by the general court-martial convening authority (the post commander) to a general court-martial for trial. App. 131.

At the conclusion of the Art. 32 proceeding, the investigating officer filed a report in which he recommended that the charges against respondent be dismissed, and that the civilian authorities investigate a named female suspect. App. 136. On October 23, after review of this report, the commanding general of respondent's unit accepted the recommendation and dismissed the charges. In December 1970, the Army granted respondent an honorable discharge for reasons of hardship.2

Following respondent's release from the military, and at the request of the epartment of Justice, the CID continued its investigation. This was extensive and wide ranging. In June 1972, the CID submitted to the Department of Justice a 13-volume report recommending still further investigation. Supplemental reports were transmitted in November 1972 and August 1973. It was not until August 1974, however, that the Government began the presentation of the case to a grand jury of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.3 On January 24, 1975, the grand jury indicted respondent on three counts of first-degree murder, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1111. App. 22-23. He was promptly arrested and then released on bail a week later.

On July 29, the District Court denied a number of pretrial motions submitted by respondent. Among these were a motion to dismiss the indictment on double jeopardy grounds and another to dismiss because of the denial of his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. App. to Pet. for Cert. 44a, 46a, 49a. Relying on United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 92 S.Ct. 455, 30 L.Ed.2d 468 (1971), the District Court concluded: "The right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment does not arise until a person has been 'accused' of a crime, and in this case this did not occur until the indictment had been returned." App. to Pet. for Cert. 49a. Trial was scheduled to begin in August.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit stayed the trial and allowed an interlocutory appeal on the authority of its decision in United States v. Lansdown, 460 F.2d 164 (1972). App. to Pet. for Cert. 42a. The Court of Appeals, by a divided vote, reversed the District Court's denial of respondent's motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss the indictment. 531 F.2d 196 (1976). The Government's petition for rehearing, with suggestion for rehearing en banc, was denied by an evenly divided vote. App. to Pet. for Cert. 2a.

The Court of Appeals panel majority recognized that the denial of a pretrial motion in a criminal case generally is not appealable. The court, however, offered two grounds for its assumption of jurisdiction in this particular case. It stated first, that it considered respondent's speedy trial claim to be pendent to his double jeopardy claim, the denial of which Lansdown had held to be appealable before trial. Alternatively, although conceding that "[n]ot every speedy trial claim . . . merits an interlocutory appeal," and that "[g]enerally, this defense should be reviewed after final judgment," the court stated that it was "the extraordinary nature of MacDonald's case that persuaded us to allow an interlocutory appeal." 531 F.2d, at 199.

On the merits, the majority concluded that respondent had been deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The dissenting judge without addressing the jurisdictional issue, concluded that respondent's right to a speedy trial had not been violated. Id., at 209.

Because of the importance of the jurisdictional question to the criminal law, we granted certiorari. 432 U.S. 905, 97 S.Ct. 2948, 53 L.Ed.2d 1076 (1977).


This Court frequently has considered the appealability of pretrial orders in criminal cases. See, e. g., Abney v. United States, 431 U.S. 651, 97 S.Ct. 2034, 52 L.Ed.2d 651 (1977); Di Bella v. United States, 369 U.S. 121, 82 S.Ct. 654, 7 L.Ed.2d 614 (1962); Parr v. United States, 351 U.S. 513, 76 S.Ct. 912, 100 L.Ed. 1377 (1956); Cobbledick v. United States, 309 U.S. 323, 60 S.Ct. 540, 84 L.Ed. 783 (1940). Just last Term the Court reiterated that interlocutory or "piecemeal" appeals are disfavored. "Finality of judgment has been required as a predicate for federal appellate jurisdiction." Abney v. United States, 431 U.S., at 656, 97 S.Ct., a 2039. See also Di Bella v. United States, 369 U.S., at 124, 82 S.Ct., at 656.

This traditional and basic principle is currently embodied in 28 U.S.C. § 1291, which grants the federal courts of appeals jurisdiction to review "all final decisions of the district courts," both civil and criminal.4 The rule of finality has particular force in criminal prosecutions because "encouragement of delay is fatal to the vindication of the criminal law." Cobbledick v. United States, 309 U.S., at 325, 60 S.Ct., at 541. See also Di Bella v. United States, 369 U.S., at 126, 82 S.Ct., at 657.

This Court in criminal cases has twice departed from the general prohibition against piecemeal appellate review. Abney v. United States, supra; Stack v. Boyle, 342 U.S. 1, 72 S.Ct. 1, 96 L.Ed. 3 (1951). In each instance, the Court relied on the final-judgment rule's "collateral order" exception articulated in Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 545-547, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 1225-1226, 93 L.Ed. 1528 (1949).

Cohen was a stockholder's derivative action in which federal jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship. Before final judgment was entered, the question arose whether a newly enacted state statute requiring a derivative-suit plaintiff to post security applied in federal court. The District Court held that it did not, and the defendants immediately appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed and ordered the posting of security. This Court concluded that the Court of Appeals had properly assumed jurisdiction to review the trial judge's ruling, and affirmed.

The Court's opinion began by emphasizing the principle—well established even then—that there can be no appeal before final judgment "even from fully consummated decisions, where they are but steps towards final judgment in which they will merge. The purpose is to combine in one review all stages of the proceeding that effectively may be reviewed and corrected if and when final judgment results." Id., at 546, 69 S.Ct., at 1225. The Court's conclusion that the order appealed from qualified as a "final decision," within the language of 28 U.S.C. § 1291 however, rested on several grounds. Those grounds were summarized in Abney v. United States, 431 U.S., at 658, 97 S.Ct., at 2040:

"First, the District Court's order had fully disposed of the question of the state security statute's applicability in federal court; in no sense, did it leave the matter 'open, unfinished or inconclusive' [337 U.S., at 546, 69 S.Ct. 1221]. Second, the decision was not simply a 'step toward final disposition of the merits of the case [which would] be merged in final judgment'; rather, it resolved an issue completely collateral to the cause of action asserted. Ibid. Finally, the decision had involved an important right which would be 'lost, probably irreparably,' if review had to await final judgment; hence, to be effective, appellate review in that special, limited setting had to be immediate. Ibid."

Two years after the decision in Cohen, the Court applied the "collateral order" doctrine in a criminal proceeding, holding that an order denying a motion to reduce bail could be reviewed before trial. Stack v. Boyle, supra. Writing separately in that case, Mr. Justice Jackson (the author of Cohen ) explained that, like the question of posting security in Cohen, "an order fixing bail can be reviewed without halting the main trial—its issues are entirely independent of the issues to be tried—and unless it can be reviewed before sentence, it never can be reviewed a all." 342 U.S., at 12, 72 S.Ct., at 7.

In Abney, the Court...

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