COVID-19 affecting defendants’ rights to fair and speedy trials

10 On Your Side

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — Local court systems have significantly reduced their docket to keep people away and hopefully slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Courts are still holding arraignments, determination of council and bond hearings, however all jury trials in Virginia are continued. Seating a 12-person jury is an impossible task in the time of social distancing.

A defendant’s right to a fair and speedy trial is a crucial staple of the American justice system. So crucial, it’s part of the Bill of Rights.

“You have an interesting dynamic here of the speedy trial rights of the defendants who are in custody, but also the safety well-being of the community, the security of the courthouse,” explained defense attorney Stephen Pfiffer. “The majority of my time over the last 14 days has been fielding phone calls from the prosecutor’s office to try to set new dates, and it’s a moving target right now because it keeps getting extended and extended.”

Those affected most by continuing cases to unknown dates in the future are the defendants who were denied bond and remain behind bars.

“I think what really causes a lot of challenge is they still have a right to a speedy trial, which basically means they have five months to be brought to trial from the date of indictment, and that’s just not practical right now, ” explained defense attorney Eric Korslund. “I cannot see jurors coming into courts for the next two to three months.”

Judges are still holding bond hearings.

“What the court is doing is reconsidering a lot of defendants’ bond status in light of the delay of all these cases and the threat — I think a very serious threat — of this breaking out in a jail, which would be deadly,” said Korslund. “There’s no windows in a jail. As far as I know, nobody’s been tested in a jail, and you have a large amount of people crammed into a little space. So, it’s just a recipe for disaster. Everybody has to balance the need for getting these individuals out of jail but we still have to protect the community.”

As attorneys manage the present, they’re looking to the future and the very real possibility of a giant backlog of cases and trials once the courts are fully back up and running.

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