There’s such an enormous backlog of criminal trials in Colorado because of pandemic delays, civil trials in some jurisdictions will go dark until next summer as judges and attorneys scramble to keep up.
The coronavirus surge has changed so quickly, a Boulder County District judge recently wrote one order to postpone all civil trials in his district, and within 24 hours extended that order for another month.
“Due to the ongoing health emergency, and the need to prioritize a large backlog of criminal trials, the chief judge, in consultation with the district judges, has determined all civil jury trials set through June 2021 must be continued,” wrote District Judge Anthony Hartman in an order that came out Friday, amending the order he sent out the day before with a May date.
Civil attorneys are frustrated because their cases are seen as less of a priority than criminal matters.
“These postponements really do affect us. A significant part of the issue is people’s memory. The longer the trial languishes, the more ‘I don’t remembers’ we get from witnesses,” Defense Attorney Emily Swanson of Lasater and Martin, who received the back-to-back postponements from Hartman, told Colorado Politics.
“We’re not seeing this in any other county this far in advance,” she said. “What is this based off of? Why are we talking 8 months? Where did that order come from? It just comes out of nowhere. It’s arbitrary.”
Colorado Politics made repeated attempts on Thursday and Friday to speak with Hartman and his clerk for an explanation, but received no response.
The orders may be related to Boulder County’s recent surge in coronavirus cases: as of Friday, 136 new cases had sprung up in two days, with 62 hospitalizations. Boulder County Health administrators announced that the area is inching toward Safer at Home Level 3 restrictions. So far, the county has had 5,680 cases, and 85 people have died.
But Boulder’s 20th Judicial District is not alone. Colorado’s Judicial System is a patchwork quilt of guidelines that change with the virus, and the advice of each county health department.
Criminal case backlog
The criminal side of the justice system is also struggling to keep up with coronavirus exposures and guidelines. Earlier this month, Boulder County had its first murder trial of 2020, where Isaiah Rios was convicted in the stabbing death of a Longmont man. That trial was postponed when a member of the defense team was hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms but eventually resumed. The jury found Rios guilty of first-degree murder after deliberating for just one day.
“We have more serious trials coming up. We are going to feel the brunt of this backlog,” Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty told Colorado Politics. He says his office tried more felony cases in 2019 than it did in the five years previous to that, and they then hit a wall in March when courts started closing down.
“We’re trying to balance what justice is in the time of the pandemic,” he said.
The recent murder trial of a man who killed an Adams County deputy was “the most bizarre cases I’ve ever seen,” 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young said. “The virus has changed the makeup of the courtroom, the handling of exhibits. We had to clean the desks off after every witness; we were moving the jury around. We could only have four people in an elevator at a time. It was like herding cats.”
Dreion Dearing was convicted of first-degree murder this week in the death of Adams County Deputy Heath Gumm. At one point in the five-week trial,
the court held its breath as it waited for one juror’s coronavirus test to come back. It was negative.
“If she would have tested positive, the whole jury would have been quarantined,” Young said.
Young said there were other times when he thought the trial was going to end. A victims’ advocate tested positive. Still, the trial continued.
He was convinced the trial was over when he was called to the bench in the trial’s third week. “Judge Mark Warner told us the Chief Judge had canceled all jury trials because some employees in the courthouse had tested positive,” Young told Colorado Politics. “But we were able to make it work.”
Ironically, Adams County shifted to Safer at Home 3 status just one day after Dearing was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
STEM shooting trial
In an order dated Oct. 28, 18th Judicial District Chief Judge Michelle Amico wrote that after considering information from the Centers for Disease Control, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and also upon consulting with the Tri-County Health Department, trials will “continue to move forward but at a mindful pace.” That pace, she wrote, will require all trials to be completed in one work week, Monday through Friday.
“What’s wrong with weekends?” said her frustrated district attorney, George Brauchler, who says Amico’s order spells doom for any future murder trials.
Brauchler, who oversees the 18th’s four counties, which include Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert, says there’s no way a murder trial can be wrapped up in one work week.
“When the criminal justice caseload dam breaks, scheduling issues will only put pressure on prosecutors. It's crippling,” he told Colorado Politics.
One of the state’s most high-profile murder trials, that of accused STEM shooter Devon Erickson, was scheduled to start in a Douglas County courtroom this past September, but it was postponed with no start date in sight. Brauchler, who is term-limited and will step down this January, says a new DA will try Erickson.
“We are going to have to fire sale important cases,” he said, referring to defense attorneys negotiating plea deals. “There’s not a chance that we’ll see Erickson being tried before the end of the year.”
The backlog, which continues to climb exponentially, concerns Brauchler. In 2019 the 18th had 155 felony trials, his office said; so far in 2020 they have had 34, which mostly happened in January and February.
“We won’t know what this looks like until next year, but at some point the chickens are coming home to roost. Criminal cases are sticking up like cordwood. The biggest losers in this process are gonna be the victims and the community,” he said.