Assembling a jury for a trial can be difficult enough, but if you add COVID-19, the task can seem monumental.
The pandemic has significantly affected the Minnesota judiciary. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, victims, offenders, witnesses, prison staff and juries are at risk of contracting COVID. It also created backlogs, further complicating the court schedule.
Some fear that, under pressure, ordinary standards of justice could become more strained, if not compromised.
“There is no question that cases are being resolved and requests for transactions are being accepted that would not have been considered in the absence of COVID,” said Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.
Small, who is also a member of the National Association of District Attorneys, said tensions are being felt across the country. Participants expressed concern that both prosecutors and public defenders are “strongly encouraged” to solve cases, he said.
The pressure to clean up the court file is twofold: to make up for lost time, and because the longer the case drags on, the more difficult it is to put together all the pieces for the trial. Protracted legal proceedings, during which witnesses’ memories may fade, victims may refuse to testify, and experts may change jobs or move to another location, can also make it difficult to reach a fair decision.
“This is a crisis in the judiciary,” Small said.
DELAY IN NUMBERS
Kyle Christopherson, a spokesman for the State Judicial Administrator’s Office, said it would be impossible to statistically prove that cases are being rushed to reach plea agreements because the state does not track these features. He added that even before the pandemic, most cases are usually settled by plea agreement, and that less than 5 percent actually go to trial.
The judiciary reports backlogs of 11,850 cases as of December, compared with 14,631 in July. The backlog is defined as the number of additional felonies and felonies pending compared to the number of pending cases at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Christofferson said.
As for jury trials, which by their very nature go against pandemic protocols of distancing from others, they were less than half the norm in 2020.
In 2019, there were 989 criminal jury trials in the state. In 2020, this number dropped to 455. In 2021, it increased to 850.
COURT EMPLOYEES REWORKED, STRESSED
These efforts affect the judiciary.
“Everyone is doing a great job, but it comes at a price,” Chief Justice Michael Cuzzo said at a Minnesota Judicial Council meeting in December. Cuzzo represents the Sixth Judicial District, which includes Duluth.
“I think we’re really seeing our employees get stressed out by the level of work they’re doing. I think this is happening with judges from top to bottom,” he said. “But it just seems like at some point we kind of hit a limit where the staff is really stressed to a high level.”
Over the past two years, the board has taken several precautions to make jurors more comfortable.
FEAR OF INFECTION
Ruth B, 60, of Bloomington, spent two weeks in Hennepin County Circuit Court as a juror in a murder case in December. She was a juror 28 years ago and said the experience was very different.
“One thing was the jury box,” she said of her previous experience. “It was a tiny thing. We stood elbow to elbow. This area just disappeared.”
During her recent tenure as a juror, she said the courts prioritize keeping the 14 members at a reasonable distance from each other, even in breaks and during deliberations.
“We’re going to have to stay in this room,” Bee said of the conference room next to the courtroom, where jurors would retire during breaks. “It was probably our smallest apartment. We didn’t go in and sit down. We kind of all stood around the wall to be as far away from everyone as possible. But it was still close.”
She prepared by getting vaccinated and boostered and said everyone should wear a mask at all times. During deliberations, court officials cleaned the courtroom for the day so that jurors could spread out.
JURY DELAYED, NOT REMOVED
If someone showed signs of illness or was disturbed, they were allowed to extend their jury duty to a later time.
“The gentleman, who was about 70 years old, was called to serve on a jury and he was able to delay it due to his concerns about COVID,” Bee said.
The council said its reason for delaying the jury covers a range of COVID-related issues – exposure, infection, and those who don’t want to wear a mask or get screened for the virus.
To compensate, court staff have tried to hold more pretrial jury meetings via Zoom video conferences or postpone in-person meetings. They also resorted to calling more jurors than usual in order to have a larger reserve in case someone got sick. However, collecting enough jurors is still a problem.
“We are still facing a situation where jurors feel uncomfortable, unwilling and, frankly, unable to work,” said Ramsey County Chief Judge Leonardo Castro. “I keep reassigning people with concerns. In fact, we have set a clear rule that we do not let anyone in who has a cold. And if they tell me they have a runny nose, they’ll get a six-month extension.”
In the Second Judicial District of Ramsey County, juries were adjourned on COVID matters 656 times in 2021, 271 of those times in the past six months. A total of 177 jurors were rejected after passing COVID testing, according to Castro’s report.
But the virus can strike at any point in the process.
“We had one judge who had three jury trials that were continued last month due to COVID,” said Chief Justice Joseph Bultel, who works for the Third Judicial District, which includes Rochester. “Six potential jurors were released due to possible exposure, and then two other court hearings continued due to the fact that the defendant tested positive for COVID. In one jury trial, we had a juror who tested positive for COVID, so you had to test other jurors, and that took about a two-day delay.”
With the introduction of the omicron variant, little is expected to change in the next few months.
The Council postponed any changes to the protocols, hoping that by the end of January the situation could improve.