Colorado public defenders clash with Larimer County judges over jury trials during coronavirus pandemic
Two Colorado public defenders could be held in contempt of court after they refused to go forward with a jury trial in Larimer County on Tuesday over COVID-19 safety concerns, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial in one of the few counties in the state where trials are still taking place during the worsening pandemic.
The Eighth Judicial District, which includes Larimer and Jackson counties, is one of only four judicial districts in the state with counties at the elevated yellow or orange levels of coronavirus restrictions that have not suspended jury trials due to the surging spread of the virus.
Sixteen of the state’s 22 judicial districts have suspended all jury trials, and two additional districts have suspended trials in counties where COVID-19 levels are high, while allowing the proceedings to continue in less-impacted counties.
“When everyone else is closed, it’s problematic that the Eighth for some reason has decided that they should remain open and force people to trial,” said Maureen Cain, external communications director for the state public defender’s office.
Eighth Judicial District Chief Judge Stephen Howard on Tuesday defended his decision to keep jury trials going. He’s working closely with the Larimer County public health director, he said, and believes trials can continue to be held safely.
“(The public health director) said there is no indication of any COVID spread among or related to any court operations,” Howard said. “Specifically what he said was, ‘What you’re doing is working.’”
The court has adjusted its procedures to require mask-wearing and social-distancing, among other precautions, Howard said. So far, jurors have been willing to report to the courthouse and have responded well to the precautions. The district has successfully completed 24 jury trials since August.
The public defender’s office has vehemently disagreed with the chief judge in court filings, taking the stance in one motion that they objected to “going forward with a jury trial in the midst of a global pandemic with trial procedures that risk lives and violate (the defendant’s) fundamental constitutional rights.”
On Tuesday, two public defenders refused to proceed with the jury trial for a man accused of assault and false imprisonment, prompting District Judge Stephen Jouard to declare a mistrial and order the attorneys back to court in December to explain why they should not be held in contempt of court, a charge that carries sanctions ranging from a fine to six months in jail.
Jouard had previously denied the defense’s request for a mistrial, and the attorneys filed an emergency petition with the Colorado Supreme Court challenging the judge’s decision; that petition was denied Tuesday.
It’s at least the second time this fall a public defender has faced sanctions related to the novel coronavirus — an El Paso County public defender was held in contempt in October for refusing to appear in person for a trial; he is set to appear in court for sentencing on Dec. 7.
Jury trials in El Paso County were suspended two weeks after the attorney refused to appear in person.
“It’s concerning that the courts in Larimer County remain open despite clear indications this virus is spreading at a rapid rate and requests by the governor for all of us to cancel our plans for the holidays and not associate with anyone outside our immediate family,” Cain said.
Howard on Tuesday acknowledged that the public defender’s office is “very concerned” about jury trials continuing, but said the justice system must continue to advance cases.
“Evidence gets cold, witnesses go away, victims are a very big consideration, there should be closure,” he said, adding that once jury trials are suspended it’s unclear when they will be able to resume.
“There are those who disregard, for political reasons, what people say,” he said of pandemic precautions. “I’m not one of those people. My decisions will be based entirely on what I think is best, taking into account public health and the need to carry out judicial functions.”
He added that shifting conditions could prompt him to suspend trials in the future, particularly if the virus spikes during the holidays.
Aside from the Eighth Judicial District, trials are ongoing in the Third Judicial District in southeast Colorado, where one county moves into Level Yellow on Wednesday, as well as in the neighboring 15th Judicial District, although no trials are scheduled to take place there until the end of December.
In the 13th Judicial District, which includes Morgan, Logan, Washington, Yuma, Kit Carson, Sedgwick and Phillips counties, trials have not been suspended but Chief Judge Michael Singer said he is meeting with officials Wednesday to go over the COVID-19 numbers and consider options.
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