BALTIMORE (AP) _ Courts here are so clogged that murder charges were dismissed against four defendants because their trial in a 1995 gangland slaying kept getting postponed.

Other cases could be in trouble, too.

``This case would affect cases not just in Baltimore City, if that interpretation is to go forth, but cases through the state of Maryland,'' State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said Wednesday.

In Baltimore, which handles half of Maryland's crime, it is becoming increasingly difficult to assemble judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and witnesses for trial.

``We are dealing with a criminal justice system currently that is totally overwhelmed,'' Jessamy said. ``The system will continue to be strained unless we get additional resources.''

Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown dismissed the charges Tuesday against the four accused in the October 1995 murder of Shawn L. Suggs, 21, saying the long wait for trial ``boggles the imagination.''

On six occasions, defense attorneys or witnesses were unavailable. On six other occasions, the court was unavailable. One postponement came after one of the state's main witnesses was slain last summer.

The Maryland Attorney General's office is appealing the ruling

Brown's ruling was based on a Dec. 7 decision by an appellate court, which threw out the conviction of a Baltimore man charged with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. The case was postponed nine times over 19 months, including seven occasions when a judge was unavailable.

``We are unaware of any case that even approaches this level of delay,'' the Court of Special Appeals wrote. ``Serial postponements of trial due to the unavailability of the court is the equivalent of the failure to assign any trial date.''

Under state law, prosecutors must bring a defendant to trial within six months unless a judge postpones the case for ``good cause.'' But the appellate court's ruling has altered what may constitute good cause in Maryland.

Homicide detectives were extremely frustrated to see their work go down the drain, said police spokesman Robert Weinhold. A spokesman for Mayor Kurt Schmoke said the mayor hoped there would be no more cases so severe that they have to be dismissed.

Although it's not known how many cases could be affected by the ruling, there are several cases for which the trial date has been repeatedly postponed. According to The (Baltimore) Sun, William Flowers, scheduled for a first-degree murder trial this Friday, has had his court date postponed 15 times over three years. Ridgely Bond, also charged with first-degree murder, racked up 13 delays in more than two years.

Judges, prosecutors and other court officials say they've been working to try to streamline the system.

Everyone agrees that drugs are behind the clogged courts and jails. Drugs also are blamed for Baltimore's murder rate _ one of the highest in the nation _ which has topped 300 for the past nine years.