Early last summer before the Andrew Delke trial was scheduled to begin in July, I was given permission to attend the trial as a special reporter for Sidelines, the MTSU campus newspaper.  Unfortunately, the trial was delayed again and I will graduate before it ever gets started.  My deep interest in the 2018 incident, as well as Delke's trial and eventual verdict, caused me to wonder how the pandemic and its related delays could impact this trial's outcome.  I then wondered about strategies for trial delays in general and which side of our court system benefits most from them. This article is the result.

Pandemic takes toll on 6th Amendment guarantee, but delays could prove beneficial

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, court systems nationwide have suspended operations, including grand jury presentations, jury trials and sentencing hearings, until the gravity and impact of the pandemic lessens for everyone. 

Davidson County courts are no exception, including the trial of Andrew Delke, the Metro Nashville Police Department officer who was charged with criminal homicide in the 2018 death of Daniel Hambrick. Jury selection for the trial was originally set to begin earlier this year on March 11, with the trial slated to begin March 16. 

 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Delke’s trial was delayed for three months.  This summer, when it was evident that the pandemic wasn’t ending any time soon, the trial was delayed once again.

 

The most recent reports indicate that Delke’s trial has now been delayed until at least February 2021, close to three years after Daniel Hambrick’s death.

 

A fair and speedy trial

Some argue that pandemic-related court delays and closings are infringing upon rights included in the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to a fair and speedy trial.  But the argument can be made that delays could be beneficial for both sides, even in Andrew Delke’s upcoming trial.

“Trial delays generally benefit the defense, in that witnesses die, evidence gets lost, memories fade,” says Dr. Larry Burriss, a journalism and media law professor at Middle Tennessee State University.  “The Constitution guarantees a swift & speedy trial.  At the same time, though, the attorney is obligated to offer the best possible defense, and if that means spending more time gathering evidence, then you spend more time gathering evidence.”

Kerry Haymaker, a Nashville defense attorney who was appointed by the court in 2009 to represent Jerome Barrett in his trial for the notorious 1975 murder of 9-year-old Marcia Trimble, explains that the definition of a speedy trial is vague at best.

“A defendant has a right to a speedy trial, but the definition of a speedy trial is relative.  Generally, if it takes over 2 years, then the assumption is that their rights have been violated.  But if the defense asks for a continuance, then the assumption is that they are waiving their rights to a speedy trial,” he says.

The domino effect of mistaken identity

On a hot and humid night in July 2018, baby-faced MNPD officer Andrew Delke, 26, was on duty.  Newly assigned to the Juvenile Crimes Task Force, Delke was on patrol looking for stolen vehicles and juvenile offenders. 

At some point during his shift, Delke became suspicious of a white Chevrolet Impala he encountered at a four-way stop in North Nashville.  Delke followed the vehicle and ran the license plate.  The vehicle wasn’t stolen. 

Delke chose to follow it anyway. 

What happened next remains murky.  Officer Delke claims he thought he saw the Impala sitting in the parking lot of the John Henry Hale Apartments, located on Jo Johnston Avenue between 14th and 16th Avenues.  

Delke pulled his patrol car into the apartment parking lot.  That’s when he says that Daniel Hambrick, 25, started running across the parking lot and onto Jo Johnston, heading west towards 17th Avenue.  Officer Delke gave chase and yelled for Hambrick to stop.  Delke claims he saw that Hambrick had a gun.

Hambrick didn’t follow Officer Delke’s order to stop.

Footage from the video surveillance camera mounted on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet High School, located at 17th and Jo Johnston Avenues, shows what happened next.

When Hambrick failed to stop, Officer Delke stopped on the sidewalk and fired four shots from his service weapon.  Two hit Hambrick in the back.  One went through the back of his skull.  The last bullet hit a building.

Hambrick died at the scene. 

It was later revealed that white vehicle in the parking lot was not the Impala that Delke had begun following, even after he learned that it wasn’t stolen. 

Two months later, Andrew Delke was charged with criminal homicide. The same day he was charged, Delke was decommissioned by the MNPD.

The bigger the case, the bigger the jury pool

Because of the local and national spotlights on the case, especially in light of more recent events surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the jury pool for Andrew Delke’s trial is expected to be made up of at least 300 people due to the anticipated difficulty of selecting impartial jurors.  Pandemic-related restrictions in Davidson County courts make it impossible to house such a large jury pool at the Metro Courthouse while maintaining the required social distancing. 

But aside from the limitations of accommodating such a large jury pool while still maintaining the guidelines for COVID-19, the prolonged delay could have other effects on a potential jury. 

An Atlanta-area ADA who has also served on the other side of the aisle as a criminal defense attorney and a public defender for juvenile offenders, explains that juries can sometimes blame the prosecution for trial delays, regardless the reason. 

“When they start hearing that a trial has been delayed for an extended period of time, I think they usually blame the state for that, unless there’s some compelling reason otherwise.  And then the state would have to explain, as best as they legally could, why there was a delay,” he says. 

Treading lightly in a call for justice

Dr. Burriss explains that the prosecution needs to proceed cautiously with the Delke trial not only for jury selection, but for timing of the trial itself.  Although the pandemic-related delays may appear to have worked in the state’s favor as far as conveniently preventing the trial from starting this summer during the height of the public outcry and response to George Floyd’s murder, no one can predict the future, especially nowadays.

“We could argue that the delay is going to inflame the jury even more.  As we delay this trial, public sentiment is going to get worse.  The prosecution has to balance this out: do I want to go to trial now, while tensions are high, but what will tensions be later on? They want to get this thing to trial and be done with it before another event happens and brings this to the forefront again.  Unfortunately, there seem to be more and more incidents going on,” he says.   

Public outrage over recent police-related events may initially seem to be a boon for the prosecution in Andrew Delke’s trial.  However, the state must also consider that a verdict in their favor could be construed by some as biased and unfair down the road.  The balance between justice for a young man’s murder versus a public witch hunt to hold law enforcement accountable must be flawless.  Otherwise, a guilty verdict could face years of appeals and perhaps be eventually overturned.

Whether these ongoing delays for Andrew Delke’s trial yield advantages for either side of the court is debatable and as yet unknown.  What we do know, however, is that Nashville and the nation are all anticipating this trial with a collective bated breath.