RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The COVID-19 pandemic is already leaving lasting impacts on area court systems. From the moment the virus struck central Virginia in mid-March, courthouses have been forced to temporarily close, limit capacities, limit who’s allowed in, and, in some cases, temporarily halt allowing jury trials.
Chesterfield’s General District Court re-opened Thursday after being closed for much of this week. New Kent’s courthouse was abruptly closed Monday through Friday of this week for an extensive cleaning. Signs outside the courthouse indicate that COVID-19 cases were identified inside. “A confirmed case of individuals who have contracted the COVID-19 virus has conducted business in the courthouse,” the order read.
Richmond’s John Marshall Courthouse and Henrico courts are among the others to temporarily close within the last few months. Local defense attorney Russ Stone, who represents people all around Central Virginia, said the pandemic’s effects are creating significant backlogs. “Cases that should be over within two or three months are now taking a year,” he said.
BJ Castro is sick of waiting. “Delay after delay after delay,” he said. He’s sick of waiting for his day in Henrico court, where he’ll fight for equal custody of his 4-year-old son.
“It’s legitimately a year and a half [waiting] on my custody case, in which is time lost,” he said. Castro said a backlog is to blame. One time, his attorney even caught the virus. He was forced to reschedule the hearing. The new date is in June. “How do you compensate for time lost with your child? That’s it. You cant,” he said.
“I think we’re going to be seeing heavier dockets for probably the next year. Oh and major cases, they’re an even bigger problem,” Stone said. Major cases often bring in juries. However, during the pandemic, each locality needs to get their plans for jury trials approved by the supreme court. Only a handful in Virginia, like Richmond and Henrico, have done that. This means some Virginians with the constitutional right to a jury trial don’t even get the option right now.
“It’s technology, its infrastructure and its resources. If you’re a locality that has a deficit in any of those three areas, then you’re not going to be at the advantage like some other localities are,” Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor told 8News this week.
Regardless, Taylor said the lawyers, judges, and others with ethical obligations to “ensure that the constitution is being upheld” recognize their commitment to due process. “We all should be working towards that goal. To ensure that the constitution is being respected even in a pandemic,” Taylor added.
“It may be a situation where a prosecutors have to re-evaluate a case and try to balance the protections of the victim and the protections of the constitutional rights of the defendant.”
The fact that some Virginians don’t get an option to have a jury trial raises serious questions about whether or not their constitutional rights are being infringed upon, Stone said. A judge would ultimately make that call.
Taylor said how the county’s court system is handling the pandemic is a model to other counties. “One of the things I’m the most proud about is the collaboration that happened at the very beginning,” she said.
Taylor said in mid-March, many court cases were continued at least 90 days. Henrico, like many others, continued with matters like arraignments and disposing of cases where people where incarcerated. Henrico court never fully stopped.
As new cases pile on top of the old in many jurisdictions, Taylor said she’s been telling prosecutors to re-evaluate which non-violent crimes are worth pursuing. “Maybe this is that opportunity for criminal justice reform advocates. Really do a reset to review what’s important and what’s not important,” she said.
In regards to the backlogs, Taylor said she believes the judicial systems will eventually catch up. “There will come a time that the system will correct itself.”
A silver lining in this, defense attorney Russ Stone said, is that systems are learning ways to streamline what they do. For example, they’re perfecting e-filing documents and video appearances. “While everything is very frustrating, we are all learning things through this,” he said.
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