Misdemeanor trials to resume in November after 8-month suspension due to COVID-19

Dimond Courthouse
A woman leaves the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau on Feb. 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)(Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

After an eight month hiatus, jury trials will resume in Alaska courtrooms in November. But not all of them. And the long delay in justice is hard on some Alaskans.

George Benson says he’s been jailed at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau for the last three months.

“I feel like I’m being held in here unfairly and unjust,” Benson said.

The Juneau resident was arrested for felony assault back in February. He posted bail and was out for several months on electronic monitoring. But he says the ankle monitor’s battery died, he got arrested again, and his bail was reset so high that he can’t afford to get out again.

Meanwhile, Benson says his trial date has been pushed back four times already. He says his family can’t visit him, and he’s lost his job and housing.

“During the COVID thing, I feel like I’m just … I shouldn’t be stuck in here and my girlfriend is like, you know, feeling the same way I am and my family,” Benson said.

James Christie, a criminal defense attorney in Anchorage, says it’s not just those accused of crimes who are living under a huge cloud of uncertainty. He had a homicide trial scheduled for last spring that was indefinitely postponed by the pandemic.

“People who are victims of crimes, who are desiring closure and resolution of their cases, all the family members,” Christie said. “These are all people whose suffering has been protracted for who knows how long.”

Most criminal cases are resolved in other ways, such as through negotiations between the prosecution and defense. Only a fraction are heard by a jury. But Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger says there are still a lot of cases backed up.

“I’m sure hundreds. And I think I would be safe to say thousands,” Bolger said. “I mean, we have thousands of filings across the state every year. Jury trials have been suspended since the middle part of March.”

Bolger issued an order Thursday allowing jury trials for misdemeanors or lesser crimes to resume in November with special conditions. Everyone in the courtroom must get a daily health screening and — with few exceptions — wear a masks at all times. Plexiglas screens will go up, and social distancing rules will apply.

That means the old picture of six jurors sitting side-by-side in a jury box will not be seen again anytime soon.

“We expect that in all of our courtrooms the jury will have to be spread out throughout the entire courtroom to allow for adequate social distancing,” Bolger said.

Observers will have to watch the trial remotely from another room.

Instead of dozens or even hundreds of people physically arriving at the courthouse all at once for the jury selection process, prospective jurors will be prescreened with questionnaires and video or teleconferences. Even the usually crowded courtroom routine of attorneys questioning prospective jurors’ backgrounds could be replaced by Zoom.

Courtrooms in some smaller communities simply aren’t big enough for a socially-distanced jury trial. So they’ll be moved to larger communities nearby.

Bolger calls it a cautious approach focusing on everyone’s safety. He acknowledges trials could be postponed again at a particular courthouse, or even statewide, if people get sick.

“One thing that I’ve learned from this crisis is that it’s very difficult to predict the future or predict what action will be appropriate in a pandemic,” he said.

As for more serious felony trials, which take a lot longer and require a minimum of 12 jurors, Bolger says those might resume in January. But a lot could happen in the next few months.

 

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