CHEYENNE – On any given weekday, the third floor of the Laramie County Governmental Complex, the home of Laramie County District Court, is buzzing with activity.
In most respects, the court’s work on criminal cases has been ongoing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with several arraignments, plea agreements and sentencings happening each week. Many defendants and attorneys still appear virtually, though in-person appearances are becoming more common.
But one integral part of the U.S. criminal justice system – jury trials – have been few and far between since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Over this last year, it’s sort of like nothing really changed or got better,” Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell said of the backlog of trials.
One of the main sticking points has been the difficulty of gathering potential jurors together for selection, deliberation and breaks in limited courtroom space while also adhering to distancing requirements laid out in a jury trial operational plan. Such a plan was required by the Wyoming Supreme Court before lower courts were able to resume holding jury trials, Campbell said.
Preparations to resume jury trials began to ramp up in February, with a plan to allot one week per month for each of the four district court judges to try a case in Courtroom D, the only one large enough to accommodate social distancing.
Since then, Campbell said he’s seen two cases go through jury selection: in one, a defendant came in the second day and failed COVID protocols, and in another, also on the second day, the defendant pleaded guilty.
“They’ve been virtually nonexistent,” Cheyenne attorney Mitch Guthrie said of jury trials.
From Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove’s perspective, the lack of a looming trial over that past 14 months took the pressure off defendants to resolve their cases.
“What I see happening is that a lot of the cases that are being resolved through plea agreements, now that there’s actual trials available, those cases are getting resolved,” Manlove said. “So it’s not that there’s a delay in trials – I think that there was a delay in defendants either accepting a plea agreement, or a lot of the offenders have not been in custody because of the detention center’s COVID plan. And so, if you’re not in custody, then there’s not any kind of immediacy with the trial date.”
The vast majority of criminal cases across the country don’t make it to trial, with defendants often taking plea agreements or simply pleading out.
For those set on having a trial, though, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. In May, the court met with public health officials and developed a new plan, which cut down on social distancing requirements. Beginning in July, judges will be able to hold jury trials in their own courtrooms, though they will still need to be masked, Campbell said.
This modification will also allow trials that require more than five days – often homicides, child sexual abuse or other complicated cases – to finally go forward.
“I don’t know how long it’ll take, but we’re starting to see improvement already,” Campbell said. “And they’ll catch up – everybody will catch up.”
"A huge issue”
For those who do intend to proceed to trial, the backlog in Laramie County that has accumulated since March 2020 is a problem, defense attorneys said.
Beginning in mid-March 2020, the Wyoming Supreme Court issued periodic orders encouraging judges to use video and audio technology for things like arraignments, sentencings, and bond and probation hearings. The Supreme Court also ordered jury trials be paused, unless the court had a safety plan in place that had been approved by local health officials. Individual judges could also delay trials at their discretion based on health and safety concerns.
At times, including in a Nov. 13 order, jury trials were suspended until further notice because of a spike in the state’s COVID-19 cases.
Without these orders, Campbell told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in early 2021, any case that was not tried within 180 days of the defendant’s arraignment, or in the “speedy trial” time frame, could be dismissed by the state.
As a result, though, the pandemic left people charged with often-serious crimes in limbo while they await a trial date – a reality made more difficult when a defendant isn’t able to post bond and must remain in jail.
“When you have some (defendants) that are incarcerated, that becomes a huge issue, because they may not need to be incarcerated for that long if they go to trial,” Cheyenne attorney Dion Custis said. “So it’s just on a case-by-case basis as far as if your client is willing to to wait a little longer than usual.”
Jury trials for people who are currently incarcerated are typically placed on the schedule before others. Guthrie said he’s had a client in the Laramie County jail for two years, awaiting a trial on stalking charges.
“Jail is a place that is equipped and set up to handle you for a relatively short period of time – maybe weeks, a couple of months. It’s not the kind of place, like a prison environment, which is designed to handle your needs on a long-term basis,” he said.
However, Guthrie said he’s seen bond be more available during the pandemic than it has been in the past, likely in an attempt to prevent overcrowding and the spread of COVID-19 in jails.
“I would hope that those kinds of feelings would be carried forward and we could maybe reduce our jail population, and this could be some impetus for long-term change,” Guthrie said.
Even with complications created by repeated continuances, Custis said he prefers not to have jury trials while COVID restrictions are still in place, and many of his clients agree with him. Though he hasn’t yet participated in any in Wyoming since the beginning of the pandemic, he has participated in three in Colorado that had masking requirements in place, much like the Laramie County District Court’s current rules.
“It really hampers jury selection and being able to read people’s faces and expressions and ... body movements, stuff like that,” Custis said.
Guthrie said he worries about the effect of unconscious bias in juries if his clients are required to wear a mask during a trial.
“It’s going to be a hidden bias, making my clients show up like a bank robber, and I just don’t think that’s ever going to result in a fair trial,” Guthrie said.
With the permission of individual courts, masks are not required during court proceedings when a person is sitting at least 6 feet from another individual, including while sitting at the witness stand. Plastic barriers have also been erected between stations in each courtroom.
Custis said that, in Colorado, some potential jury members were excused simply because of concerns about COVID.
“I think that violates defendants’ rights to have a jury of their peers, to a certain degree,” Custis said. “Especially if the court decides to exclude jurors simply because of their fear of COVID, there’s a large percentage of the population that then you wouldn’t get on the panel that you normally would. ... So, whenever you’re limiting the amount of people that are being called and the randomness of it, in my view, it violates defendants’ constitutional rights to a fair trial and to due process.”
Laramie County District Court also hears civil cases where the contested amount is greater than $50,000, as well as juvenile and probate issues and appeals from lower court decisions.
But because of the backlog in criminal trials, which take priority because of speedy trial requirements, Campbell said many civil cases set for trial have been put off until spring or summer of 2022.
“We contact the attorneys and say, ‘Sorry, attorneys, (there’s a) pandemic, and criminal cases come first.’ So they’ve been put off and rolled off into the future, and so none of them have come even close,” Campbell said.
For one of Custis’s civil cases that is likely to go to trial, which involves the death of an infant, timing is “a big unknown.”
“It’s a new issue that no one’s had to deal with before, so I think everybody’s trying to do the best they can,” the attorney said.