The wheels of justice have gone flat during the COVID-19 pandemic, but county and felony jury trials in Colorado’s courts are starting to pump things up again.
Public health and safety responses to the virus situation have been so fluid, it’s not uncommon to see Chief Justices come up with as many as four rounds of orders to keep potential jurors, attorneys and witnesses safe.
Most court buildings are open for business, stressing on their websites and on signs at the door for visitors to wear masks, but much court business — depositions and motions hearings — are happening virtually.
“Who would have had any idea when this first began that we’d be canceling proceedings into August?” said Rob McCallum, spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch. As for the impending backlog of trials waiting to be decided, “We will take them as they come,” he said.
Each of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts has its own rules for when and how jury trials will start. Colorado Politics reviewed some of them.
Felony trials in the first judicial district, which includes Jefferson and Gilpin counties, were supposed to start Monday, but Chief Judge Jeffery Pilkington ordered them postponed until Aug. 10. Two felony trials will start Monday, four on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. Charges for these proceedings include attempted murder, sex assault on a child and extortion.
Pilkington has ordered for the witness stand to be surrounded on three sides with Plexiglas.
Felony jury trials in the 19th Judicial District, which is Weld County, have been pushed to September with no target date at this time. Once trials start up again, the plan is to have one county court trial per week.
Jury trials will resume Aug. 31 in Arapahoe, Elbert, Douglas and Lincoln counties, which make up the 18th Judicial District. Chief Judge Michelle Amico’s order outlines a detailed list of sanitation requirements for participants once these trials start, for instance, attorneys may remove their masks for opening statements, for direct and cross-examinations and for closing arguments. Amico’s order also mandates the witness stand to be sanitized after each testimony and for the microphone cap at the stand to be replaced every day.
Once trials start up again, she stipulates a “slow and incremental manner.”
This past Monday, jurors were seated for the 20th Judicial District’s first jury trial since mid-March, this one involving an obstructing officer/resisting arrest case. Attorneys and witnesses wore clear face shields so that the jury and judge could see their expressions. Because of these face coverings, the judge had a hard time hearing, at times interrupting to have people repeat what they just said.
A detailed plan on the 20th’s website addresses the undeniable task of the judges to be aware of the importance of picking alternates for the jury “considering the possibility that a juror or a juror’s family member may present COVID symptoms during the course of the trial.”
On Boulder’s jury questionnaire, included with the routine queries about citizenship and educational background are questions about whether the prospective juror is ill or has tested positive for the virus.
DENVER CITY AND COUNTY
Denver resumed jury trials with specific distancing guidelines on Aug. 3, with a 33-page guideline from Chief Judge Michael Martinez.
“Juror hardships related to the pandemic may impact appearance rates,” wrote Chief Judge Michael A. Martinez. “Initial jury calls will be used to develop a new baseline for the number of jurors to be summoned.”
21st Judicial District Chief Judge Bryan Flynn posted an order Aug. 3 postponing felony jury trials in Mesa County until Oct. 6, due to “exegent circumstances.” He wrote, “In light of the large backlog of trial ready cases, the lengthy periods of detention experienced by some defendants, and public health guidance about the need to avoid lengthy exposure to other persons in indoor spaces, priority will be given to short trials involving defendants who have been detained the longest.”
Misdemeanor trials will begin Aug. 31 on a limited basis, provided judges can come up with a safe plan to do so.
District Attorney Dan Rubinstein told Colorado Politics in an email, "The DA's Office, here in Mesa County, has been ready, willing and able to present jury trials. We need to continue to get justice for our victims and community. Whatever the precautions are that are necessary, we will accommodate."
Rubinstein also revealed frustration with the local defense bar, explaining, “One local attorney sought dismissal of her client’s case for violating speedy trial, claiming in a written pleading that it was safe to do trials, and we should be doing them, and later that same day that lawyer appeared at a meeting to come up with a plan for resuming the trials, and she talked for more than 20 minutes about why it would be unsafe to hold a trial, and she would object to any effort to do so."
EL PASO COUNTY
On July 3, after the pandemic hiatus, jury trials resumed in El Paso County. Almost a month later, Aug. 2, a court staff member working in the El Paso County Judicial Building tested positive for COVID-19. According to the Colorado Judicial Branch website, that person was quarantined beginning the afternoon of July 31. Since then, jury trials there have come to a halt until Aug. 14.
This article has been updated with a response from Teller County.