Jury trials resumed this week in both district and county courts in the 22nd Judicial District, which includes Montezuma and Dolores counties.
The pandemic forced a near-total suspension of jury trials in the district and in Colorado through orders from former Colorado Supreme Chief Justice Nathan B. Coats and 22nd Judicial District Chief Judge Douglas Walker.
With vaccines becoming more widespread, Walker adopted a plan this month to resume in-person jury trials with added safety protocols.
The potential jurors go through a health screening, are required to wear masks, and are kept separated. During jury selection the jury pool, which can reach more than 100 people, are divided in different rooms with a video feed of the jury selection process.
Trials can be watched by the public via a live feed at Montezuma County Court webpage. The first trial since March 2020 year was held this week.
The selected six-person or 12-person jury is spread out in the court room during the case, rather than all in the jury box. During the trial, printed copies of evidence must be shown electronically, rather than passed around to jurors. Witnesses testify in a box surrounded by Plexiglas, and the number of lawyers allowed for each side is limited.
Hundreds of cases are set for trial every year, and the pandemic court closure led to a backlog and “very full dockets” for the six prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, said Assistant DA Will Furse.
“It is a lot, but not insurmountable,” he said, of the caseloads. “We have been able to litigate and resolve cases throughout the pandemic.”
In a typical year, about 12 cases, about one per month, proceed to a trial. Judicial districts in larger cities are facing even larger trial backlogs.
In general, all other court cases continue to being held virtually over Webex, with defendants and lawyers tuning in via video conferencing for procedures, motions, testimony, hearings and sentencing. The format, which is also open for public viewing virtually, will continue for the time being.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the courts closed down to avoid spread of the virus, then adjusted to hold virtual proceedings.
At Montezuma Combined Courts, restrictions were temporarily loosened in late summer that allowed cases to be held in person with a limited amount of people allowed in the courtroom. In November, all cases went back to being held in the virtual format because of the surge in cases.
Because of the pandemic restrictions and court limitations, county court summonses during the first half of the pandemic were also delayed for 90 days or longer. Now the court is busy catching up on procedures and hearings for those cases.
The county court Wednesday docket for per se cases – the defendant does not have a lawyer – increased to 90 to 100, up from 30-40 prepandemic, Furse said.
To avoid violating the defendants’ right to a speedy trial within six months because of pandemic delays, the Colorado Judicial Department and Colorado Supreme Court had to adjust the rules.
In many cases, defendants who entered a not-guilty plea and were set for trial agreed to a continuance and waive right to a speedy trial.
But some defendants did not agree to the continuance, so special permission was granted to judges to declare a mistrial during a health crisis to avoid a speedy trial violation. After a mistrial, prosecutors have 90 days to hold the trial, or longer if the health crisis continues.
Furse said the mistrials option was declared by judges in the 22nd Judicial District in several cases because of the speedy trial situation caused by the pandemic, but most defendants agreed to the continuance.
He added the convenience of virtual court proceedings improved attendance of defendants who otherwise may have missed the court date because of lack of transportation, illness, job duties, or living out of the area.
Correction: The number of backlogged trial cases reported in this story was corrected.[email protected]