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Coronavirus causing massive backlog in jury trials

bannock county courthouse

POCATELLO, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Justice is being delayed across the state because the coronavirus.

In April, the Idaho Supreme Court ordered jury trials in criminal cases to be delayed until Aug. 3 to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Hundreds of people in the Sixth District Court are waiting for a jury trial, according to Bannock County Prosecutor Stephen Herzog.

Public Defender Michael Bauer is concerned this delay interferes with Americans right to a speedy trial.

“If unfortunately we have a second wave and we have to shut down again, we could have people that are a year out from their offense that they’re still not having a resolution to that,” Bauer said.

Criminal suspects are left waiting for their day in court. Some are left waiting in jail.

“Sometimes in our society we say, ‘Oh they’re criminals, they should sit in jail.’ Well he hasn’t been convicted of anything. He’s been sitting in jail now since February and he hasn’t been convicted of a single thing,” Bauer said.

To keep jails from being overcrowded, courts are allowing non-violent suspects to be released on their “own recognizance,” like a no-cost bail. Police are also issuing orders for suspects to appear in court rather than arresting and booking them into jail.

The extra room in the long-overcrowded jail has boosted morale among inmates and jail guards, Herzog said. 

Preliminary hearings and court appearances that don't require a jury are being held virtually.

“We’ve figured out how to conduct hearings and introduce exhibits and take testimony without having people come to the courthouse and all the cost and inconvenience that goes with that,” Herzog said.

The Bannock County Courthouse added kiosks at the courthouse for people without computer or internet access to virtually attend their court hearings. The jail also had to fix their internet service to make virtual appearances from inmates run more efficiently, Bauer said.

“If we continue to have hearings (virtually), we have to continue to have accommodations for folks,” Bauer said.

Virtual hearings may linger after the pandemic because of their efficiency, Herzog said. But Bauer has concerns that could further strip people of their rights.

“It has been predominantly the rights of the defendants that have been affected,” Bauer said. "And that's wrong to me."

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Emma Iannacone

Emma is a reporter for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.


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