More Utahn could be called upon to serve on jury amid post-pandemic trial backlog

SALT LAKE CITY – More Utahns could receive juror duty notices in the mail, as the state’s justice system clears a backlog of trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judges expect to have to hold more trials this year, as many simply could not move forward in 2020 due to the deadly virus. It has affected incarcerated defendants and even simpler cases due to the necessary precautions during the pandemic.

“This has been a source of concern for us. One of the challenges that courts face is that unlike any other state institution, judges have the ability to compel a person to appear in court. also be a juror and sit on trial in the case, ”said Michael Drechsel, deputy administrator of state courts, in an interview with FOX 13.

Utah state courts hold approximately 1,200 trials each year statewide. Of these, around 350 involve juries (the rest are trials before a judge alone). Due to COVID-related delays, courts are considering around 1,500 trials this year.

“We are all going to have to continue the number of trials that we have and would normally have scheduled in 2021 as well as all the cases that have not been tried in 2020,” Third District Court Judge Todd Shaughnessy said in a recent meeting. of the Utah Judicial Council.

For the few trials that took place in 2020, it was certainly unique. Entire courtrooms have been occupied with jurors seated in place of an audience in order to be physically separated from each other. Jurors, witnesses, clerks, defendants and lawyers are all reportedly tested for COVID during a trial. When a witness was called to testify, he was placed in a special plexiglass box erected in the courtroom with its own ventilation system. Only then were they able to remove their masks.

Those health protocols are being relaxed as vaccinations increase in the state, the council was told. So now the judges have to catch up.

“We have dozens of them scheduled throughout the summer in anticipation of easing standards and the possibility of having more courtrooms available,” Justice Shaughnessy said. “The new limitation or bottleneck that has arisen for us concerns jury selection.”

This could mean that more Utahn could be called upon to sit on a jury. The Courts Administration Office points out that there is already a considerable pool of potential jurors. Of the approximately 200,000 considered, only approximately 137,000 are considered eligible. In a typical year, only 3,000 people are actually called.

“You are not considered to have served, you are always back in the pool if you do not show up for jury selection,” Third District Court Judge Kara Pettit warned.

In 2020, the court system switched to online questionnaires and the use of WebEx for jury selection, making it easier than a trip to the courthouse, the council was told. Justice. The majority of the pending court cases are in Salt Lake County, which is the most populous county in the state. But other judges have warned of potential problems with jury selection in rural counties.

“People will be getting notices on a regular basis, but as long as we are careful not to bring them in unless we have an actual trial in the smaller counties,” Justice Brook Sessions of the Wasatch County Court of Justice said.

To help reduce the backlog, the Utah state legislature has approved spending federal COVID relief funds to take some judges out of retirement just to oversee some trials, Drechsel told FOX 13.

Not all planned cases will go to trial. Up to 80% of court cases end with a settlement or plea negotiation. But Fourth District Court Judge Derek Pullan urged his Utah Judicial Council colleagues to avoid scheduling too many trials because many of the same attorneys and clerks will end up being overworked.

“I think we have to be sensitive to the fact that the same public defenders and the same prosecutors are affected and at some point it becomes unreasonable to expect the same people to be sufficiently prepared to try three felony cases in the first degree on the same day ”. he said.

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Kristina McManus

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