REGIONAL— The U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone accused of a crime of the right to trial by a jury of their peers. But turning that right into a reality has been a challenge over the past …
REGIONAL— The U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone accused of a crime of the right to trial by a jury of their peers. But turning that right into a reality has been a challenge over the past several months as the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the country.
For months, the courts here in the Sixth Judicial District, which covers most of northeastern Minnesota, have functioned remotely, with judges, attorneys, victims, and defendants all appearing via the online video platform Zoom. While that has been a passable solution for most court matters, it was far too cumbersome to guarantee any defendant a fair trial, which is why criminal trials had been on hold since March.
That’s now changed, however, after the Minnesota Judicial Council approved a plan to restart criminal trials in the region. “Felony trials are now up and running,” said Mark Muhich, the managing public defender for northern St. Louis County. “Priority is given to felony cases where the defendant is in custody, or where there is a speedy trial demand.”
The right to a trial before a jury is the foundation of the American process, notes Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Michael Cuzzo. “Our goal is to fulfill our obligation to administer justice, while protecting the health of our community members who are exercising and performing their duties, responsibilities, and rights in our courthouses,” Cuzzo added. “The most basic characteristic of an American jury trial - fairness to all participants - will be the same as ever.”
Northeastern Minnesota counties have worked in collaboration with the courts to adapt facilities and courtrooms to ensure public health, by modifying jury boxes, adding floor markings for social distancing, increasing sanitation and cleaning, and adding Plexiglas partitions where necessary.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin says the public will likely notice the changes. For one, the jury will be sitting in the public gallery, while attorneys will operate from the jury box. Jurors will be located at least six feet apart and will be required to wear masks, as will everyone else in the courtroom.
In addition, technology is being used to allow public and media access to trials in a way that will not compromise the safety of courtroom participants. The court continues to hold regular court proceedings on a remote basis through Zoom. Those members of the public who are unable to access their court hearings remotely, may contact their attorney or the court for available resources and accommodations.
The backup in criminal trials has prompted challenges for both prosecutors and defendants and their attorneys. “Our cases never get better with age, I’ll tell you that,” said Rubin. The backup has also posed challenges for protecting victims of domestic violence. “That’s always a problem, but now it’s a greater challenge,” he said.
For those who remain in custody, waiting months to resolve their case, it is especially frustrating to everyone involved. “My responsibility is not just to the victims, but the defendants as well,” notes Rubin.
Muhich said the case backlog in the Sixth District is better than in other parts of the state, and he credits a good working relationship between all sides in the court process in northern St. Louis County. “Virginia and Hibbing have either caught up on their backlog or have no backlog at all,” said Muhich. “We’ve all worked together very collaboratively in addressing that.”
Even so, Muhich has had a number of criminal defendants who have questioned whether the delay in conducting trials is a violation of their rights. “There is a difference between horrible inconvenience and a violation of rights,” said Muhich. “I’ve been telling my clients that. If you’re not in custody, it’s really more of an inconvenience.”
With the resumption of criminal trials in the region, St. Louis County courts will again be issuing jury summons and those receiving such notices will need to respond. For those jurors required to come to court, each will be provided with a paper mask when he or she arrives at a courthouse each day. If they wish, jurors may supply their own face coverings. Additionally, Minnesota Department of Health social distancing guidelines will be followed in each courthouse, including when and where jurors assemble, participate in voir dire (the question and answer part of the jury selection process), listen to proceedings, deliberate, and move throughout the courthouse. Guidance will be available in each courthouse for how to follow social distancing in seating and elevator use. Where necessary, partitions and physical barriers have been set up in each courthouse to ensure that traffic flow and interactions are taking place safely.