El Paso County Courthouse

The entrance of the El Paso County Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex on Tejon Street with the reflection of the Pioneers Museum in the background. (Gazette file photo)

El Paso County’s chief judge has reimposed a jury trial ban in Colorado Springs and pared down court business to “limited emergency services” amid signs of a potential COVID-19 outbreak at the downtown combined courts building.

The reduced operations go into effect Monday and will last at least two weeks, a state court spokesman said Sunday.

The moves come a month after El Paso County resumed a scaled-down jury trial schedule following a nearly four-month hiatus because of risks from the novel coronavirus.

But the effort to revive jury trials — albeit at a reduced pace and with a long list of precautions — was upended by news that a court reporter tested positive for the disease on Friday, two weeks after a prosecutor also fell ill. Court reporters transcribe court proceedings, testimony and depositions.

“This is being treated as a possible ‘outbreak’ and the courthouse is going to be placed back on shutdown status,” Rose Roy, head of the Colorado Springs branch of the Office of the State Public Defender, said in an email to her staff on Saturday. “There will be no trials for the next two weeks and we will be appearing in court (virtually) when at all possible.”

In a news release Sunday, Rob McCallum, a state court spokesman, said the court employee worked in Division 15 on Monday and Division 19 on Wednesday.

Anyone who appeared in Division 15 or 19 on those dates is asked to email 04Administration@judicial.state.co.us for more information and to assist with contact tracing, McCallum said.

El Paso County Public Health Deputy Medical Director Dr. Leon Kelly advised the courts to notify everyone in the courtrooms where the staff member was present to quarantine for 14 days from date of exposure, the news release said.

Reached on Sunday, Roy raised the possibility that members of her staff have contracted the disease.

“I have attorneys that are symptomatic and we are concerned that they may have been exposed at the courthouse,” Roy said without providing further details.

The new measures will suspend many court functions, limiting operations to a predetermined list including petitions for protective orders, bail settings, juvenile detention and advisement hearings, shelter hearings in dependency and neglect cases and petitions for emergency guardians.

The courts will also attend to emergency mental health matters, motions to restrict parenting time and “proceedings necessary to protect the constitutional rights of criminal defendants,” including bond hearings.

“We will use this experience to enhance our safety protocols so the community may safely continue to conduct business in El Paso County’s courthouse,” 4th Judicial District Chief Judge William Bain said in a written statement. “In the meantime, we will continue to practice the safety protocols established by the health department for any necessary in-person hearings.”

Information on how to contact the court regarding cases may be found here.

El Paso County was the first in the state to seek an exception to a statewide ban on jury trials implemented by Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan B. Coats in response to the pandemic. The state’s top judge approved a waiver at Bain’s request, after Bain presented him with a plan to resume jury trials with precautions. Coats has since lifted his statewide ban, allowing chief judges in each district to decide when to resume jury trials.

Bain’s trial safety plan — drafted in collaboration with El Paso County Public Health — required all parties in court to wear masks, ordered frequent disinfection of trial courtrooms each day and directed parties to speak into plastic-wrapped microphones. A social-distancing requirement for jury selection meant that only one jury could be picked per day, severely limiting the number of trials that could be held.

In mid-July, the El Paso County courthouse began requiring anyone who entered to wear masks, and distributed masks to those who came without one.

Even with those steps, some judges deemed the risk of trials too high. In mid-July, for example, District Judge David A. Shakes cited the risk of coronavirus in postponing trial for Marco Garcia-Bravo, the defendant accused of serving as one of two triggermen in what authorities call the gang-related slayings of two Colorado Springs high school students in 2017.

Attorneys at the courthouse also questioned whether the precautions went far enough.

“You feel the heat and humidity of all the people waiting in the hall,” attorney Will Cook previously told the newspaper, describing people crammed onto shared benches and standing in groups. “Half of them have their masks pulled down. … It’s starting to feel unsafe.”

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office also confirmed that an inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 — the first local jail inmate known to have contracted the disease — appeared in Bain’s courtroom on July 22. The inmate wore a mask, but it repeatedly slipped from his face while he consulted with his public defender, possibly exposing others, according to a supervisor in the Public Defender’s Office.

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