While the COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every facet of daily life, one of the sectors most impacted has been the criminal justice system, which has resulted in a significant backlog of court trials.
“It’s going to be a problem,” said 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson.
Colorado Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Nathan B. Coates on March 16, 2020, suspended all jury trials throughout the state.
In La Plata County, it wasn’t until late July before Wilson issued an administrative order to start jury trials again, taking into account COVID-19 protocols such as social distancing and mask wearing.
The problem in restarting trials, Wilson said, was only one courtroom within the La Plata County Courthouse had enough space for all the prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, victims and jury members to pull off a trial.
“It took a lot of choreography,” Wilson said.
The first trial since the pandemic hit in March kicked off in mid-August for Rodney Keller, a Pagosa Springs man who was accused of sexually assaulting a girl in Bayfield in 2018.
Though the case ultimately ended in a mistrial after jurors could not come to a unanimous decision to convict, court officials were encouraged that the trial was not derailed by any issues related to COVID-19.
Then, the trial for Mark Redwine happened.
The long-awaited and highly publicized trial for the Vallecito man accused of killing his 13-year-old son, Dylan, in 2012 got off to a promising start in October and was nearing the end of jury selection.
But then, on Nov. 5, Wilson temporarily suspended proceedings after experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms. Wilson tested negative, but the next week, Redwine’s attorneys also reported symptoms, and the trial was called off.
Ever since, trials have been suspended in the 6th Judicial District, which covers Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties, and all the while, crime has not ceased, causing a massive backlog that will ultimately need to be addressed.
In just La Plata County, an estimated 115 trials are on the docket for the rest of the year – 67 in county court and 48 in district court. Not all of those cases go to trial – some reach plea agreements, others are dismissed.
For the three La Plata County district court judges, that would mean 16 trials each from now until December, on top of all the other requirements of the job with existing and new cases that pile up.
“It’s daunting to look at the numbers,” said Eric Hogue, 6th Judicial District court administrator.
So what’s to be done?
For one, with COVID-19 cases leveling off, Wilson this week issued another administrative order that will restart trials. County court cases are expected to resume April 15, and district court cases April 26.
“It’s hard to say how many will actually go (to trial), but they’ll be available to do it,” Wilson said. “And if it’s a problem, I can pull it back at anytime if we feel it’s appropriate.”
Cases that go to trial will be prioritized based on a number of factors: if and for how long a suspect has been in custody awaiting trial, the nature and seriousness of the offense, how old the case is, etc.
“We have to pick our way through this,” Hogue said. “We just have to do it. We don’t have an alternative. This is work that has to be done.”
La Plata County is also looking toward the Colorado Legislature for help, Hogue said.
The state is looking to expand the senior judge/retired judge program, which would allow former judges to handle day-to-day tasks, freeing up sitting district court judges to take on more jury trials.
Also, Hogue said there’s a push for more money to pay magistrate judges to take on some of the workload. Magistrate judges can’t oversee trials, he said, but they can handle a lot of the back work to also free up district court judges.
“We’re hopeful on both fronts,” Hogue said.
Sixth Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne said the halt on jury trials also stopped a lot of the behind-the-scenes movement on cases as well, such as negotiating for plea agreements or trying to resolve a case without a trial.
“Even cases scheduled for trial are moving toward a resolution one way or another,” he said. “They don’t all go to trial. But we just haven’t had any movement or activity in our trial docket at all.”
As trials return, it’s possible these internal workings will help move through the backlog of court cases, Champagne said.
Since the pandemic stopped trials, Champagne said there has been more plea agreements from people looking to resolve their cases. As a result, the District Attorney’s Office has been more open to working toward a resolution.
“We are trying to be more reasonable with plea bargains so we can begin to clear up the backlog,” he said. “Our offers are maybe a little bit lower in an effort to keep cases moving and prevent it becoming so massive we can’t deal with it.”
Champagne said his goal is to absorb the trial backlog and get back to the normal trial docket by the end of the year, but whether that time frame is attainable is up to a number of factors.
“So much of it is beyond our control,” he said. “We’re going to have to pick and choose what we put our energy into, and that’s tough, but some things are more important and we have to keep our eyes on that.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, measures have been put in place to reduce inmate populations at La Plata County Jail. Prosecutors, Champagne said, are pursuing more diversion programs rather than holding people in custody, too.
And despite a possible sentiment in the community that crime is up, Champagne said the opposite is true.
In 2017, Champagne said there were an estimated 4,500 cases. In 2020, however, that number fell to 3,100 cases, and the decrease is not attributed entirely to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“When it first happened, there was a real fear in the community, if we got jail numbers down, we’d see a big spike in crime,” he said. “We did not see that. Crime has gone down, and we have been releasing more people from jail.”
Even with resuming jury trials, many difficulties lie ahead.
Wilson said for the time being, under current public health orders, only one trial can be held at a time.
Hogue said the judicial district had to reduce staff as a result of the pandemic and legislative mandated budget cuts, laying off two full-time court judicial assistants and reducing a magistrate judge’s hours.
Champagne said his office was able to weather the pandemic without having to lay off any staff members. Justin Bogan, head of the local public defenders office, did not return requests seeking comment for this story.
Champagne added that all the necessary steps to pull off a trial, such as bringing in witnesses from out of state and having a full jury pool, could also be affected as trials restart.
Still, it appears the criminal justice system is about to get back on track.
“We’re lucky we’re coming out of it,” Champagne said. “This is one of the central pillars of our democracy, and if we don’t have people participating in jury duty, the whole system breaks down.”
Indeed, Wilson said the court system has gone to great lengths to ensure safety for those called to jury duty. And, as more people get the COVID-19 vaccine, the community as a whole will become safer.
“We’re in a different state now with the vaccinations,” Wilson said. “I think we’ll get through (the backlog) and we’ll be happy when we’re though it. But things have just been difficult. It’s really hard on everyone.”