Pandemic-Exacerbated Jury Trial Backlog in Attleboro State and Area Delays Justice for Defendants, Victims and Litigants | Coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown sand into the grease in the axles of the criminal justice system, further slowing the wheels of justice.

Court officials and lawyers are still grappling with a backlog of cases created when the pandemic initially closed courts in March 2020 for several weeks and delayed jury trials for about 16 months.

After resuming around July, jury trials were again suspended in late December by the state Supreme Judicial Court due to health concerns from a coronavirus outbreak.

Jury trials resumed last week after coronavirus cases declined again.

Despite the disruption, the courts still managed to complete other cases through in-person sessions and teleconferences.

Some defendants opted for trials without a jury. But the pandemic has created a backlog of jury cases, delaying justice for defendants and victims, including some who were already waiting before COVID-19, lawyers say.

“It’s the old adage, justice delayed is justice denied,” said North Attleboro defense attorney Brian Roman, who is a former Suffolk County prosecutor.

Some defendants may eventually be found innocent, Roman said, after being held on bail for a long time awaiting trial.

Others are free on bail, including curfews or GPS surveillance, but cannot resume their normal lives as their cases remain unresolved, he said.

“Across the aisle, you have victims who are seeking justice or who have restitution issues to resolve. It’s not a good situation for anyone,” Roman said.

Lawyers and court officials say they have been forced to try to balance the due process rights of defendants while trying to keep everyone who uses or works in the courts healthy.

Due to the pandemic, the CJS has extended the time required under expedited trial rules and for remand prisoners by excluding time attributed to COVID-19.

“There is no provision in the Constitution where the Constitution is suspended based on the health of the general population,” Roman said. “It’s a dangerous road to travel. We still have our constitutional rights.

“But the bottom line is that somehow the trial court is going to get away with it, as it always has, with the limited resources it has.”

The exact extent of the backlog is difficult to determine, according to a spokeswoman for the state trial court.

“The most serious and time-consuming cases tend to be those in superior courts. Of these, the overwhelming majority are normally resolved without trial, and of those that will go to trial, only a fraction of the total number of pending cases are ready for trial at any given time,” the spokeswoman said. of the trial court, Jennifer Donahue, in an email.

Also, she said, cases often resolve just before trial, through a settlement in a civil case or a plea agreement or other reasons in a criminal case.

Criminal cases, such as murders, and complex civil business litigation cases can take years to resolve and would continue to be listed as pending year after year, she said.

“These factors make it difficult to calculate a meaningful number for trial ‘delay’, so we don’t have that number available,” Donahue said.

Prior to COVID, Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn III requested a judge for a third criminal session in Fall River Superior Court in January 2019.

At the time, there were an average of 450 criminal cases pending in court. Currently, there are about 600, according to the district attorney’s office.

When jury trials resumed, Quinn said 14 murder cases had gone to trial in five months before being put on hold again in December due to a COVID surge.

“This is something unprecedented in a superior court,” said Quinn, who has served as a prosecutor and defense attorney in a legal career that spans more than three decades.

Prior to COVID, Attleboro criminal defense attorney James Caramanica said, “It was not unusual to have two trials going on in superior court.”

But the delays that have resulted from COVID have added to what is already a stressful situation for a defendant, Caramanica said, especially for those in jail awaiting trial.

“It really tires them mentally,” he said, adding that disappointment and frustration grow when their trial day is delayed.

Caramanica said he had a client in Worcester County ready to stand trial for murder before the SJC suspended trials until this month because of COVID.

“We were all ready to go,” he said, “and we were hustled into July.”

Delays and prosecutions can also prevent defense witnesses from testifying due to the disruption it creates in their lives.

“You risk losing a witness,” Caramanica said. “Law enforcement witnesses are paid to be there.”

He and other lawyers are now doing “consecutive” trials in superior court, each of which can last a week or two, and are more complex and require a lot of preparation.

“In superior court, the stakes are much higher,” Caramanica said.

Quinn said he hoped a judge would again be in charge of holding three sessions.

“The backlog is certainly concerning,” he said, “but it’s not as bad as it could have been.”

The district attorney said the number of arrests has dropped due to the initial lockdown and other health restrictions preventing people from traveling on the roads and socializing.

According to statistics from the state trial court, the number of criminal cases in Attleboro District Court decreased 26% in fiscal year 2021 compared to 2020.

At Wrentham Magistrates’ Court, there were only 118 fewer criminal cases in financial year 2021 than in 2020. At Taunton, there was a 34% drop.

For civil matters in the three courts, there was a decline of 15-18% in fiscal year 2021 compared to the prior fiscal year.

Jury trials in civil cases have also been delayed, and authorities are juggling those cases with criminal cases.

For example, last Thursday in Attleboro District Court, at least two criminal trials continued because a civil trial was ongoing.

District courts are the first step in the criminal justice system. A person arrested or charged with crimes first goes to the district court. Only cases involving the most serious crimes end up in superior court.

“The district courts concern me,” Quinn said. “That’s where there are a lot of backlogs.”

David Linton can be reached at 508-236-0338.

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