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Amid pandemic, how long can courts delay jury trials without violating defendants’ rights?

  • An-Li Herring/WESA
FILE PHOTO: The Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

 WikiiMedia Commons user Dllu

FILE PHOTO: The Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

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It will be at least another three months before jury trials resume at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Last week, the court’s president judge, Kim Clark, announced that due to the continuing threat of COVID-19, she would extend a prohibition on those proceedings through the end of August.

Clark declared a judicial emergency in mid-March and has extended it three times. But starting this month, certain activities, including non-jury trials, are permitted to resume. Participants will be required to wear masks, and fewer people will be allowed to attend, to ensure they can keep safe distances from one another.

It’s not clear, meanwhile, how long trials by jury can be delayed without violating the rights of criminal defendants. The U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions give the criminally accused the right to a speedy trial. According to a state rule, that means no more than a year can pass after charges are filed – unless the accused asks for more time or there’s an emergency.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said that on the one hand, it’s necessary to protect witnesses, jurors, and court personnel who would ordinarily participate in a jury trial from the coronavirus.

“Though they have signed up for public service, nobody has signed up to die for it,” Harris said.

Still, Harris said he has “little doubt” that criminal defendants could eventually bring claims that their right to a prompt trial has been violated.

“At some point, there will be enough delay in some individual cases, that an appeals court might say, ‘Well, despite all the difficulties of the situation and the local courts doing everything they could, the delay was just too long,’” Harris said. “But we don’t know where that line is because we’ve never faced anything like this [pandemic].”

Harris said under the state and federal constitutions, it is important that defendants have the opportunity to build their best possible case against the charges the government has brought against them.

“The further on you get away from the date of charge,” Harris said, “the harder it can be to mount a defense. Witnesses move away; they disappear; people don’t remember as well.”

Harris noted that prosecutors are likely to share these challenges. But he added, a criminal proceeding is “a state-initiated process meant to do things like, where warranted, take away the freedom of the defendant.” That’s why there’s a right to a speedy trial in the first place, he said.

Research shows that the longer defendants are held in jail, the more likely they are to choose not to go to trial altogether and instead, agree to plead guilty. Even those who are not incarcerated before trial might also opt for a plea deal to avoid having charges “hanging over your head,” Harris said.

And he added that because crowding in jails can help to spread the coronavirus, today there’s even more reason to avoid detaining people before trial. “The only people who should be inside prior to trial at this point, are people who simply cannot be released without imminent danger … to public safety,” Harris said.

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