Eagle County courts facing backlog of jury trials
Pandemic has heavily impacted Colorado’s legal system, including ability to try cases before a jury
Courts in Colorado’s 5th Judicial District have continued to operate throughout the coronavirus pandemic. They are, however, bracing for a backlog of jury trials now scheduled for this spring and summer — a situation courts around the state are facing.
As many as 130 trials are now scheduled for the months of March to June in the county and district courts in Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties that make up the 5th Judicial District. That total includes everything from traffic and civil cases to misdemeanor and felony criminal cases.
“This is basically a year’s worth of trials that are probably built up and being squeezed into three months,” District Court Judge Paul R. Dunkelman said.
The pandemic has heavily impacted the justice system. Most court appearances are now being made virtually. Jury trials were on hold for much of 2020, and remain on hold for now in the 5th Judicial District. Many people ordered to serve jail sentences are being scheduled to serve that time months from now.
The last jury trial in the 5th Judicial District was the murder trial for Leigha Ackerson, Judge Dunkelman said. The three-week trial started before a moratorium on new jury trials took effect for the district in mid-November, when Judge Dunkelman and the jurors decided to press on to see the trial through to completion, which they did.
The trial saw participants wearing face coverings, with extensive use of gloves and hand sanitizer whenever evidence items or paperwork were presented. Jurors, attorneys and witnesses were all divided by an array of clear plastic barriers.
That moratorium remains in place for the 5th Judicial District, with no new jury trials set to start before March 1. The timeline to resume trials was pushed back as the region continues to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus.
“In the history of this district, I don’t think we’ve ever had over 100 outstanding trials that need to go. But most of us have also never lived through a global pandemic that has shut stuff down the way this has,” 5th Judicial District Attorney Heidi McCollum said.
With the moratorium in place, judges have declared mistrials as cases hit trial dates, finding that a fair jury pool cannot be safely assembled due to the public health crisis. The approach provides some additional time for the pandemic to subside and trials to resume. But as cases go unresolved and the pandemic continues, there are also concerns about meeting the rights of defendants to a speedy trial.
“People have a constitutional right to go to trial, and victims as well. I think we just have to be committed to getting these trials done … It just has to be done, and done safely, and I think we can balance that,” Judge Dunkelman said, noting that the courts have worked closely with public health officials and others to continue to operate in a safe manner.
A statewide challenge
Backlogs of jury trials are building up all over Colorado. Statewide, only 39% of the typical number of jury trials were held in 2020 — about 660 in total, compared to the 1,700 trials that would normally be held, state officials have said.
Colorado’s judicial branch says at the same time it is grappling with staff cuts and budget reductions totaling about $45 million — roughly 11% of its general fund.
According to a judicial branch presentation to the Joint Budget Committee of the Colorado Legislature in mid-December, trial courts around the state are operating at about 80% of their full staffing levels. Staffing reductions have come even as court workers have been forced to institute broad operational changes, implement new technology, and manage higher workloads to keep courts running.
More cases are now not meeting performance targets for timely resolution set by the judicial branch, according to the presentation.
Statewide in Colorado’s district courts, nearly 17% of civil cases and 9.2% of criminal cases have now been open for more than one year, exceeding performance targets of no more than 10% and 5% for those two case categories.
In the state’s county courts, 14.7% of civil cases, 31.8% of misdemeanor cases, 17.5% of small claims, 28.7% of traffic cases, and 31.8% of DUI/driving while ability impaired cases have been open more than six months, exceeding performance targets of no more than 5%, 10%, 1%, 5%, and 20% for those categories of cases.
The Office of the State Court Administrator did not respond to requests for additional information about how budget and staff reductions and case backlogs are impacting the 5th Judicial District specifically.
The Dillon Public Defenders Office, the local branch of Office of the State Public Defender that serves defendants in the 5th Judicial District, also did not respond to requests for comment on how the pandemic is impacting attorney workloads and its clients.
In remarks to the Joint Budget Committee in mid-December, State Public Defender Megan Ring and First Assistant Public Defender Karen Taylor noted that the office has instituted salary freezes, voluntary furloughs, hiring delays and budget reductions.
While the pandemic resulted in fewer new criminal cases being filed statewide, numbers are starting to and expected to rebound, and the number of outstanding cases the public defender’s office is serving statewide has continued to grow.
According to the presentation by Ring and Taylor, the number of outstanding felony cases statewide that are being represented by a public defender, excluding drug offenses, has increased from 11,747 in June 2019 to 12,793 in June 2020 and 14,786 in September 2020. They also said they have seen a 43% increase in the average number of days it takes to close a case compared to fiscal year 2018-2019.
The reliance on virtual court appearances can be challenging not only for public defenders, they said, with wide variation in the technology that courts are using and with varying IT capabilities in judicial districts around the state, but also for public defenders’ clients.
“We have a large population of not simply indigent clients but clients who have no home and no access to phones or computers and the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 puts more people in similar circumstances,” Ring and Taylor noted in their presentation to the Joint Budget Committee. “Thus, while the virtual system has some benefits, nearly every activity from getting signed paperwork to sharing discovery to resolving cases has become more difficult and time consuming.”
The pandemic has also impacted jails and prisons. Colorado’s prison system reported 7,994 infections, 493 active cases and 25 deaths from COVID-19 as of last Friday.
The Eagle County Detention Facility has taken significant steps to prevent the introduction and spread of coronavirus, and so far has not had any outbreaks or positive cases among the inmates in its general population, said Detentions Captain Greg Van Wyk.
“We’re very proud of it,” Van Wyk said. “I think it’s a culmination of a collaborative effort with public health.”
Life is also different for inmates in the county jail. At the start of the pandemic, the jail shut down its work release program and other inmate programming that involved people entering and leaving the jail. While the work release program remains on hold, other programming has returned, largely in virtual formats, and jail staff are working to launch new programs this year to help inmates succeed after serving their jail sentences.
One of the largest logistical challenges has been the 14-day quarantine period both for new inmates and for inmates who leave the jail for court hearings and may have had close contact with others, limiting numbers of new inmates the facility can accept at any one time.
“The reason we’re seeing these (jail) sentences deferred for so long is because of the quarantine we have to do,” Van Wyk said. “Looking at the schedule now, we have people in the community who will turn themselves in to jail even out into July 2021.”
The widespread adoption of virtual court appearances means jail staff are transporting fewer inmates. In 2019, jail staff in Eagle County drove 29,000 miles transporting inmates. That mileage totaled just 17,000 in 2020 and is expected to drop more in 2021.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.