Jury trials will remain on hold until at least mid-September after the Idaho Supreme Court extended an emergency order from March providing guidelines for local judicial districts and courthouses to maintain services through the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the order, criminal jury trials may not occur before Sept. 14, and civil jury trials are delayed until at least Dec. 1. Idahoans 65 and older will be exempt from sitting on a jury, if they ask to be, due to the heightened risk of COVID for that age group. In addition, jurors will be screened with temperature checks and questions each day that they enter the courthouse.
Since mid-March, court hearings have been taking place via video-teleconference, unless otherwise stipulated by the presiding judge.
According to Blaine County Chief Public Defender Justin McCarthy, the transition from in-person hearings to video and telephone hearings has “dehumanized” his clients.
“The Sixth Amendment says a defendant has a right to confront his accusers,” McCarthy said, “and I think that’s really diluted through Zoom.”
McCarthy said that during a normal in-person hearing when the defendant sits before a judge, facing him or her, “there’s that human connection.” Furthermore, in-person hearings allow the judge to read the room, to read people’s body language and hear their tone of voice without technical glitches, McCarthy said.
All hearings, including most sentencings, have been done via Zoom since the pandemic started in Idaho, making it particularly hard for McCarthy to support his client during a difficult time.
“If I have good rapport with them, I could put my hand on their shoulder if need be if they’re feeling a lot of stress and let them know that we’re here as their advocate, something that’s incredibly important,” he said.
Although that support may not win a jury trial, for McCarthy, and for his clients, sometimes it’s the most important aspect—to treat each client with a sense of humanity, respect and kindness.
“Their constitutional rights are partially on the shelf right now,” he said.
Due to the COVID-19, the Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that defendants no longer have a right to a speedy trial, meaning that some of McCarthy’s clients have been sitting in jail for months— some since last year, either because they are being held without bond or cannot afford the bond amount. While most criminal cases in the U.S. are resolved without a jury trial, “sometimes the only way to resolve a case is to have a trial,” something that’s simply not feasible or safe to do amid a pandemic.
McCarthy said some of his clients in the jail are “extremely frustrated,” though the likelihood of successful legal action against the judicial system because of these restrictions is slim because of immunity the courts have in emergency situations. For now, McCarthy said he will continue to represent and support his clients in any way he can, as the court system does what it can to keep cases moving via Zoom.
Delays also frustrate prosecutors, victims
Blaine County Deputy Prosecutor Matt Fredback said delays are rarely good for the prosecution.
“While we understand the need for a delay of jury trials, it has certainly prolonged the stress and anxiety for victims that are awaiting conclusions of their cases,” Fredback said in an email to the Mountain Express. “In addition, the uncertainty of when we can have jury trials has made scheduling witnesses and experts difficult. We sure hope to get back to court soon.”