It’s been more than six months since Alaska’s courts suspended jury trials, creating a backlog of cases and leaving some Alaskans waiting in limbo for their day in court.
The pause is to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And while misdemeanor trials are set to resume in November — because they require fewer jurors, and therefore allow for better social distancing — there is no solid timetable yet for restarting jury trials for felonies.
That’s created a problem as Alaska’s courts try to balance their responsibility to public health with their obligation to timely resolutions for defendants and victims.
“Those are very, very serious constitutional and statutory rights,” said Joel Bolger, chief justice of the state Supreme Court. “They’re something that should be seriously weighed when we consider whether to restart jury trials, even though the coronavirus is still present in our community.”
Anchorage resident Angela Pointer is just one person caught in the middle. Her son Leroy Lawrence died in 2017 when, according to charges, two young men shot from their car at a group of people near Lawrence, an innocent bystander.
“After he got shot, and everybody ran like usual, he had laid there for like a couple minutes, and he didn’t get enough air to his brain,” Pointer said.
It was Lawrence’s 17th birthday.
After his family and many friends at East High mourned his death, they waited five months for criminal charges, then another full year for one of the men accused in the shooting to be extradited from Israel, and a couple more years as the case headed toward trial in 2020.
Earlier this year, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case told Pointer the trial would probably be this fall.
“He said for sure we should be trying to start trial towards the end of the year,” Pointer said. “Since then, the virus has came out and derailed all of that.”
Pointer doesn’t blame the courts for having to put trials on hold. She sees the virus as yet another delay in a series of delays. But she worries it could affect the prosecution of the men accused of killing her son.
“My only concern would be like, I don’t want it to get sloppy because of the pandemic,” Pointer said.
That’s a concern shared by state prosecutors like Anchorage District Attorney Brittany Dunlop.
“Our evidence doesn’t usually get better over time,” Dunlop said. “It’s as good as it’s going to get when people’s memories are fresh and we recently seized and tested the thing, the weapon or whatever. So we generally like to go to trial as quickly as possible.”
From the prosecutor’s perspective, delays in getting murder cases to trial tend to help the defense, Dunlop said.
Unexpected delays in such cases are not out of the ordinary. What’s unusual now is that all trials have been on hold, and after more than six months there’s a massive backlog, she said.
Dunlop said clearing the backlog of cases might require entering into more plea agreements to avoid going to trial. But there’s a problem with that, too, she said: A common complaint from defense attorneys lately is that coronavirus restrictions on jails have made it harder for lawyers to discuss deals with their jailed clients.
Meanwhile, some inmates have complained about their cases dragging on while they wait in jail.
Bolger, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said that as the cases pile up, each defendant’s right to a speedy trial before a jury of their peers puts a little more added pressure on the courts to restart trials.
“And I don’t want to leave the impression that we would make a hasty decision, but definitely those are important things to consider, and we are taking that into consideration,” Bolger said.
In a Sept. 24 order, Bolger announced misdemeanor trials will be allowed to resume Nov. 2. The order says all other jury trials will remain suspended until at least Jan. 4.
So Angela Pointer will wait until then or longer to see the men charged in her son’s murder put on trial.
“I’m just not going to let this go down,” Pointer said. “This is not going to be one of them cases that’s going to get swept underneath the rug. No. I’m just not. You’ve taken something from me and you had no right. No right.”