Minnesota court grapples with sitting jury, backlog amid COVID pandemic – Twin Cities


Putting together a jury for a trial can be challenging enough, but throw in COVID-19 and the task seems epic.

The pandemic has significantly affected the Minnesota Judicial Branch. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, victims, offenders, witnesses, prison staff and jurors are all at risk of contracting COVID. It also creates a backlog, adding a burden to court schedules.

Some worry that conventional standards of justice could become strained, if not compromised, under pressure.

“There is no question that cases are being resolved, and agreements are being made without COVID, that will not be considered,” said Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Bar Association. .

Small, who is also a member of the National Association of District Attorneys, said tension is brewing across the country. Members expressed concern that both prosecutors and public defenders are “strongly encouraged” to clarify cases, he said.

The pressure to deal with court filings is twofold: catching up with the backlog, and as the case drags on, the harder it is to put together all the pieces for trial. A delayed trial in which a witness’s recollection may fade, a victim may not testify, or professionals change jobs or move locations may make it difficult to reach a fair verdict. such a towel.

“It’s a crisis in the judiciary,” Small said.


Kyle Christopherson, a spokesman for the Office of State Court Administration, said that statistically proving that cases are being rushed to settlements would be impossible, because the state does not track expenses. that particular detail. He added that, even before the pandemic, most cases were usually settled with a plea agreement and less than 5% actually went to trial.

The justice sector reported 11,850 cases backlog as of December, down from 14,631 in July. The backlog is defined as the number of additional felony and misdemeanor cases pending compared with the number pending at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

As for jury trials, which are essentially going against pandemic processes of staying away from others, are less than half the norm in 2020.

In 2019, the state held 989 felony jury trials. In 2020, that number drops to 455. In 2021 up to 850.


That effort is taking its toll on judicial officers.

“People are doing a good job, but it also comes at a cost,” Chief Justice Michael Cuzzo said at a meeting of the Minnesota Judiciary Council in December. Cuzzo represented the sixth Judicial District, which includes Duluth.

“I think we’re really seeing our employees stressed with the level of work they’re doing. I think that’s happening with judges from top to bottom,” he said. “But it feels like at some point we’re about to hit a top spot where it’s really taking employee stress to the next level.”

The board has enacted a number of precautions over the past two years to try to make jurors more comfortable.


Ruth Bee, 60, of Bloomington, spent two weeks in Hennepin County Courthouse as a juror for a December murder trial. She served as a juror 28 years ago and for know this experience is very different.

“One thing is the jury box,” she said of her previous experience. “It’s this little thing. We were elbow to elbow. That area is just gone.” Minnesota court grapples with sitting jury, backlog amid COVID pandemic – Twin Cities

Yasmin Harisha

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