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.
BACKLOG BY NUMBERS
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.
COURT STAFF IS TOO HARD, STRONG
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.
FEELING ABOUT INFECTION
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.”
In her more recent stint as a juror, she said, courts have prioritized keeping 14 members at an appropriate distance, both during breaks and during deliberations.
“We had to be in that room,” Bee said of the conference room outside the courtroom, where the jury would retire during recess. “It was probably our smallest quarter. We don’t go in there and sit down. We all stood around the wall to stay away from everyone. But it’s still close.”
She prepared herself with vaccinations and booster shots, and said that everyone must wear a mask at all times. During deliberations, court officials cleared the courtroom for the day so the jurors could disperse.
JURORS Identified, NOT REMOVED
If anyone shows signs of illness or anxiety, they are allowed to extend their jury duty for a later time.
“A gentleman in his late 70s has been called to jury duty, and he may be adjourned due to concerns about COVID,” Bee said.
The panel said the reason for delaying the grand jury was on persistent concerns about COVID – exposure, infection and people not wanting to wear a mask or be tested for the virus.
To compensate, court staffers tried to conduct more preliminary meetings with jurors via Zoom videoconference or stalled face-to-face meetings. They have also resorted to convening more jurors than usual to have a larger group to draw from in case someone gets sick. Still, assembling enough jurors continues to be a struggle.
“We continue to encounter situations where jurors are uncomfortable, unwilling and frankly unable to serve,” said Chief Justice Leonardo Castro of Ramsey County. “I continue to schedule anxious people. We’ve basically established a clear rule that says we don’t let anyone in if they’re snorted. And if they tell me they have a sniffle, they get a six-month extension. “
In the Second Judicial District, for Ramsey County, jurors have been adjourned for COVID-19 issues 656 times in 2021, with 271 occurrences in the past six months. As reported by Castro, a total of 177 jurors declined after completing their COVID screening.
However, viruses can strike at any time during this process.
“We have a judge who had three jury trials resumed last month because of COVID,” said Chief Justice Joseph Bueltel, who serves in the Third Judicial District, which includes Rochester. “Six potential jurors were excused due to possible exposure, and then two more trials were continued because the defendant tested positive for COVID. In a jury trial, we had one juror who tested positive for COVID, so you have to test the other jurors, and that took about two days. “
Given the increase in omicron variation, not much is expected to change over the next few months.
The council has postponed any changes to the protocols, hoping that by the end of January things could improve.
https://www.twincities.com/2022/01/09/minnesota-courts-grapple-with-seating-juries-backlog-amid-covid-pandemic/ Minnesota court grapples with sitting jury, backlog amid COVID pandemic – Twin Cities