Jeffco trials resume with precautions and an unprecedented backlog

DA: ”We have a real crisis in the criminal justice system”

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/18/20

On Aug. 3, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges alike returned to the Jefferson County courthouse for the first jury trials in nearly five months to find a court system that, like the community …

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Jeffco trials resume with precautions and an unprecedented backlog

DA: ”We have a real crisis in the criminal justice system”

Posted

On Aug. 3, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges alike returned to the Jefferson County courthouse for the first jury trials in nearly five months to find a court system that, like the community it serves, has been completely changed by COVID-19.

Many of the most obvious changes were in the actual courtrooms where plexiglass now separated judges and witnesses while all jurors were now masked and seated six feet apart.

Then there is the daunting impact of all that didn’t happen during the last five months as the suspension of trials has created an unprecedented backlog of them in the First Judicial District (comprised of Jefferson and Gilpin counties).

PREVIOUSLY: 40 inmates test positive for COVID-19 at Jeffco Jail

According to a document outlining the process for how jury trials would be resumed in the judicial district, there are 840 Jeffco jury trials scheduled for the final five months of 2020. While some of those trials will likely be pleaded out, it’s still stunning figuring consider that 374 Jeffco jury trials were held during the entirety of 2019.

It’s a situation that adds up to what First Judicial District Attorney Pete Weir called “a real crisis in the criminal justice system brought on by COVID-19”—and its one that he says is exacerbated by the fact that the situation creates different incentives for prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“The cascading effect of this is the defense bar and the public defenders have not been resolving cases,” Weir said. “They understand that this kind of backlog in the justice system works to the benefit of their client so they are exploiting the situation that we have with the courts.”

Prioritizing of cases

To resume trials while ensuring public safety, Chief Judge First Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Pilkington has implemented a system that involves prioritizing the trials to be tried by asking district attorneys to submit an ordered list of which trials should be take place each day in order of their importance.

A judge will then hold a conference at which both prosecutors and defense attorneys are present and the defense has a chance to tell the judge whether they want to take a plea, continue the case continued or proceed to trial. From there, the judge will then set the final list of trials to be tried on each particular day.

That process is necessary, Weir said, to ensure that the court is only bringing in jurors for cases that it has confirmed are ready to go to trial as the court has now greatly reduced the number of potential jurors it is summonsing each day.

According to Pilkington’s order, the district would routinely assemble 300 jurors at the same time in the court’s jury room (which has a capacity of 398) prior to COVID-19.

However, the district is now bringing in few jurors at once and calling only 18-40 potential jurors depending on the type of case with jurors now being assembled in four large rooms upon arrival to allow for social distancing.

“That prioritization is really an attempt to say we can’t by a longshot try every case that needs to be tried so we are trying to identify the most critical, the most important cases and then the rest of the cases frankly just get kicked down the road and they get continued,” said Weir.

Once a trial finally begins, social distancing requirements in the court room also create new challenges that simply didn’t exist in the past. For one thing, communication is often hindered when, for example, an attorney must be seated at least six feet away from their client.

There are also challenges outside the court room as Weir said he has instructed his staff to continue working remotely, which Weir said “is not an efficient way to conduct our business given the nature of it.”

But while the situation is an unprecedented challenge for the courts and DA’s office, the changes have not had a major impact on the Jeffco Sheriff’s office according to its spokesman.

“We were previously only doing in-person trials, so to transition back to that is more the norm for us than what we’ve been doing the past few month,” said Michael Taplin, the public information officer for the Sherriff’s Office.” But no more personnel are needed or anything like that.”

While Weir said that he agrees with steps taken by both the courts to respond to COVID-19 by suspending trials, however he has deep concerns about where the situation has left the community. At the start of the crisis, Weir and his team dropped charges in more than 2,000 low level misdemeanor cases in an attempt to reduce some of the burdens on a court system forced to reduce operations.

Weir said he worries those actions, combined with the current backlog in the courts and steps taken to reduce the population of the jail, have added up to a nearly impossible situation, putting people who have engaged in criminal activity back out on the street.

“We have been concerned about overwhelming the healthcare system but we have absolutely overwhelmed our criminal justice system and as a result I am concerned about public safety and risks to the community from a crime perspective,” he said.

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