COVID’s impact on justice system: ‘It is a huge departure from how we try people’

Coronavirus

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. (KTVI) – Judges are doing everything they can to keep cases moving while facing evolving challenges.

In St. Louis County, Thomas Bruce was scheduled for a jury trial last October in a murder case. Bruce is accused of murder and sexual assault at a strip mall right before Thanksgiving 2018. Bruce’s trial delay will be at least 10 months. It’s now set for August.

Another St. Louis County case could bring answers in the decades-old missing person case of Christian Ferguson. The 9-year-old has been missing for 16 years. His father, Dawan Ferguson, faces two possible trials: one for murder and another for sexual assault. The judge and attorneys have worked through video conferencing to set one of the trials to be among the first out of the gate when juries return.

“People think because there’s no in-person proceedings that there’s no work being done,” said Chris King, spokesperson for the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office. “There’s a tremendous amount of work being done and not only in bench trials. There’s a lot of plea agreements being made.”

King has been watching the video-conferenced trials, and he’s noticed that judges are repeatedly asking defendants if they’re sure they want to waive their right to a jury trial.

“It is a huge departure from how we try people on criminal charges, and there’s reason to be cautious about how we’re doing it,” King said.

Trial attorney Paul E. Sims said he has clients who would possibly be out of jail if not for the pandemic.

“I’ve got five guys right now that I believe have a legitimate shot of walking out of the courtroom if we – once we get to trial,” he said.

Part of trial planning involves how to safely return jurors to the courtroom, and Sims fears reopened courtrooms will bring new challenges regarding jury selection.

“I have to be assured that you’re going to pay attention to the evidence that’s presented at the trial – not if this person next to you coughed,” he said.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer pointed out the importance of trials. “They are such a part and parcel of this courthouse,” he said. “We do so many jury trials compared to other jurisdictions.”

Stelzer said officials are choosing which jury trials will go first, considering, “the age of the case, out-of-town witnesses, whether or not they made a request for a speedy trial under the constitution.”

He added, “So all those factors will go into how we prioritize this. And it’s not just criminal cases, we have civil cases too we have to factor into the equation.”

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