Courts

Backlog of jury trials grows during COVID-19 pandemic

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THURSTON COUNTY –– The state Supreme Court’s order to suspend all Superior Court jury trials in the state until at least July 6 has come and gone but — citing an abundance of caution in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — local health and court officials continue to delay the commencement of jury trials.

An ever-bloating backlog of jury trials awaits prosecutors, defense attorneys and court staff when trials are permitted to commence — a problem that appears all the more daunting due to the limited venues for trials to take place.

“We’re going to struggle, and we’re also going to struggle because we have only the capacity to run one jury trial in our current facility,” said Pam Hartman-Beyer, Thurston County Superior Court administrator. Hartman-Beyer said there were already between 400 to 500 different cases set for jury trials when they were suspended in March. The state also waived speedy trial dates — or the timeframe the state must hold a trial for a defendant.

The decision to further delay jury trials came from local officials, after an order from Governor Jay Inslee limited social gatherings for counties in Phase 3 of the state’s Safe Start Plan to 10 individuals (Thurston County was approved for phase 3 on June 24). While court proceedings don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of “social gatherings,” documentation from the county indicates the order provided enough concern for local health and court officials to postpone trials.

When Thurston County was first approved for Phase 3, social gatherings were limited to 50 people. The county’s Superior Court didn’t initially make the decision to further postpone trials until after the number of people who could gather for social events was cut down to 10. In that time, eight criminal trials were set on the calendar and all were resolved before the trial date.

“In Thurston County, community transmission of COVID-19 has been steadily increasing and case rates are currently above target levels for Phase 3 counties. We are continuing to recommend remote proceedings where appropriate, maintaining social distancing of at least six feet, and wearing a face coving when it does not interfere with court procedures,” reads a statement provided to The JOLT by Magen Johnson, COVID-19 public information strategist for the Thurston County Department of Public Health and Social Services.

The statement goes on to read: “The resumption of jury trials will occur at the discretion of the judges informed by recommendations by local health jurisdiction assessment of transmission rates within the county, hospitalization rates, death rates, and other indicators as well as having the procedures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the courts.”

Initially, the decision of whether or not to resume trials was on a recurring 10-day basis. That decision was pushed to 17 days last week, said Christy Peters, chief of staff with the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office.

Trials present a challenge in curbing the spread of COVID-19, due to the number of individuals in the courtroom. Jury selection processes for some of the most serious cases — which tend to span a longer stretch of time — usually require a jury selection pool of 60 to 80 potential jurors. The one courtroom currently available for trials can’t fit that many people at a safe social distance, said Peters.

 “Our office understands the issue of public safety and public health,” Peters said. “We obviously want our employees and staff and any witnesses and members of the public to be as safe as possible. So we are not in favor of moving forward if it is not garnered to be a safe situation under the public health guidance.”

A cumbersome side effect of the delay, however, is the ever growing backlog of jury trials being pushed back further and further.

“Every week we have more and more cases that get backed up. So the backlog of cases is growing and increasing by the week,” said Peters.

Peters and Hartman-Beyer both told The JOLT court officials and their various stakeholders are attempting to confirm a second venue that could hold jury trials, so two could run concurrently. Hartman-Beyer said the location would be used for Superior and District Court matters. 

Additionally, local justice officials plan to prioritize certain cases over others. Cases where the defendant is in custody or where there is a victim of a violent crime will get precedence. Hartman-Beyer likened it to a balancing act between public safety and a defendant’s constitutional rights. She noted that not every matter set for a trial actually receives one. It’s more common for a case to resolve through a plea deal prior to a trial date. However, just having a date set on the calendar often spurs a deal or other resolution.

“As everything is during this pandemic, we really don’t have control over anything other than to try to do the best we can with the circumstances we currently have,” said Peters. 

 

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