Jury trials are on hold statewide until April due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But even if the Administrative Office of the Courts allows trials to be held that month, whether there will actually be any trials in Daviess County is an open question.
“We are hopeful we are able to start back April 1, but I don’t know. It depends on what jurors have to say across the state,” Daviess Circuit Judge Jay Wethington said Friday.
Most in-person hearings were postponed last year at the beginning of the pandemic. Numerous other cases had to be postponed and rescheduled. Although hearings were held virtually, proceedings like jury trials and grand jury sessions were halted.
The pandemic has resulted in more inmates in county jails awaiting resolution of their court cases, said Damon Preston, public advocate for the state Department of Public Advocacy.
“The longer it has gone on, it has had an impact,” Preston said last week. “... The jail population for pretrial inmates is back up — not to pre-COVID (levels), but to early COVID.”
Preston said, “Now, more people are staying (in jail), and their case still can’t be brought to resolution.”
The pandemic is a special circumstance that stopped almost all court activity for a time.
The pandemic “would be seen as good cause for not having a trial,” Preston said.
Preston said he believes judges are keeping more people incarcerated now while awaiting trial than during the early months of the pandemic. A person can be held in jail if they are judged a risk to not appear at future court dates or at risk to commit a new offense, by Pretrial Services.
“There are more people the judges think are dangerous and the cases cannot be resolved,” Preston said.
“I’m sure there are some people in jail who were arrested in January (2020) or December 2019,” Preston said, adding that it’s possible some people in jail will eventually be acquitted and will have been in jail longer than if they’d gone to trial and been convicted.
Daviess Circuit Judge Lisa Payne Jones said no defendants have filed motions for a speedy trial in cases before her court. A priority, when trials resume, will be hearing the trial of a defendant brought to the county for trial from another state on an intestate detainer. Typically, people on intestate detainers are kept in Kentucky for only 90 days.
“We’ve had him for over six months,” Jones said.
Daviess Circuit Court will give priority to trials for people in custody when trials resume, Jones said. But whether trials can go forward in April will depend on if the courts can get jurors to attend.
“The last time we had a jury panel coming in, a lot of them said they did not want to come” because they were concerned about COVID, Wethington said. “I wouldn’t want to be a litigant where the jury is more concerned about their health than the evidence.”
Jones said the local Circuit Courts were able to get enough jurors for a special February grand jury, but not enough to create a pool of potential jurors for a trial. The hope is that people will be more comfortable serving on juries as more COVID-19 vaccines are distributed, Jones said.
“That’s what we are definitely hoping — the more people get vaccinated, the more people will feel secure to be on juries,” she said.
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse