Trials pushed back and jails empty due to Covid 19

GRAND RAPIDS— All circuit court jury trials in Kent County as well as many other Michigan cities have been suspended for the remainder of 2020 due to an increase in COVID-19 cases.

That, from Kent County Chief Circuit Court Judge Mark Trusock, who made the decision after consulting with local health officials and the State Court Administrative Office in Lansing.

County officials hoped to resume jury trials in October with coronavirus safeguards in place, but that is no longer in the cards.

“We have to think about the people of Kent County that would be here as potential jurors, as well as witnesses and the staff,’’ Trusock said. 

The Kent County Health Department on Thursday reported a total of 14,164 COVID-19 cases and 182 deaths. It is an upward, and worrisome trend, local health officials say.

Judge Trusock agrees. “It is important that we do not expose any people when our numbers are as high as they are right now,’’ he said.

When jury trials eventually resume, they will be held in a fifth-floor conference room that’s been converted into a courtroom with coronavirus safeguards in place. The local set-up was reviewed and praised by the State Court Administrative Office, Trusock said. 

“We have to follow what our Supreme Court has to say and it’s the Supreme Court that is giving us direction on this,’’ he said.

With circuit court jury trials on hold over the last several months, there has been a mounting backlog, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said. 

“The backlog is tremendous,’’ Becker said. “We haven’t had a jury trial in circuit court since March. So, they’re coming into the system, but they’re not necessarily going out.’’

Status conferences, plea hearings and sentencings are still taking place; defendants in many non-violent cases are out on bond, Trusock said.

“I believe we have probably 12 to 14 murder cases that we’re sitting on that are backed up,’’ he said. “But other than that, our dockets are moving fairly well.’’ 

Non-jury trials have taken place, including the September bench trial of Nathan Board for the beating deaths of his in-laws. Board was found guilty, but mentally ill, and sentenced to life in prison.

At the district court level, Kentwood District Court was the first to hold a jury trial. It happened in August with stringent coronavirus precautions in place. 

Kentwood District Court this week suspended future jury trials due to an increase in coronavirus cases. 

Kent County is by no means unique. Other counties that have put circuit court jury trials on hold include Ionia, Montcalm, Jackson and Ingham.

John Nevin, spokesman for the Michigan Supreme Court, said the State Court Administrative Office has set “clear and specific’’ procedures that must be followed for jury trials to be held.

The decision-making must reflect COVID-19 trends in the county and advice of local public health authorities, he said. 

“Courts are simply following the rules and making decisions to protect the public and court staff,’’ Nevin said.

The decision to put Kent County Circuit Court jury trials on hold was made with input from the health officials and members of the legal community, Trusock said.

Ideally, jury trials would take place in a timely manner, but coronavirus has changed that, Trusock said.

“There’s all kinds of issues that arise with this pandemic and unfortunately, that’s one of them.’’

On another note it’s not just the trials that are affected. Even in jail social distancing guidelines are in place. There is virtually no one in jail and pods are virtually empty with most of the people awaiting trial out on the street and just in limbo waiting basically for the courts to open up.

Categories: LOCAL & STATE

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