Local courts will be busy once jury trials begin again

When COVID-19 restrictions ease, nearly 200 jury trials are set up across 9th Judicial District counties and more than 11k statewide

The Pitkin County Courthouse sits empty in Aspen on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Nearly all jury trials in the judicial district that includes Pitkin County have been halted for nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and aren’t scheduled to start again until April.

Once they begin again, however, the impacts won’t be limited to attorneys, defendants, victims and court staff, 9th Judicial District Attorney Jeff Cheney said Tuesday.

“It’s going to take citizen resources too,” he said. “We need to tell the public because I’m sure you’ll be getting an invitation (to jury duty).”

Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Coats first halted all jury trials in the state March 16 at the beginning of the pandemic. In the 9th Judicial District, which includes Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, Chief Judge James Boyd has continued to follow that guidance except for a brief period in late summer when COVID-19 case numbers ebbed enough to safely allow trials, Cheney said.

At that time, a couple of Garfield County misdemeanor jury trials were held in the district’s largest courtroom in Rifle, where the jury was spread out, masks were worn and those who could not fit into the courtroom were allowed to follow on the internet, he said.

“It seemed to work out,” Cheney said. “It was different.”

Jury trials were initially set to begin again March 1 in the 9th Judicial District, but Judge Boyd on Saturday again extended that date to April 5.

As of Tuesday, 181 jury trials had been set in the three counties that make up the 9th Judicial District, including 104 felony trials, Cheney said. In Pitkin County, 10 felony jury trials currently are on the docket, while 14 misdemeanor trials are pending, said Don Nottingham, Pitkin County deputy district attorney.

That, however, is a drop in the bucket compared with those pending statewide, Cheney said.

“Between 11,000 and 18,000 are out there right now in the state,” he said. “It’s a huge number.”

Defendants are guaranteed a trial within six months of being charged with a crime, a rule often known as “speedy trial.” The state Supreme Court has had to look back more than 100 years to the time around the 1918 Spanish flu for precedent, and has made special findings to deal with the issue, he said.

Once trials finally begin again, Cheney said the impacts to his staff, court staff, courtrooms, judges, witnesses, juries, victims and defendants will be significant.

“I wouldn’t be a realist if I wasn’t concerned,” he said. “I think every prosecutor in the state is concerned. It’s going to really take a lot of resources.”

In fact, the lack of jury trials already has changed how the DA’s Office conducts business, Cheney said.

“We’ve agreed to dispositions we ordinarily wouldn’t have agreed to,” he said. “I do think we have had to make some decisions that outside of the pandemic world we might not have made.”

The exceptions are those cases that affect public safety, he said.

Georgina Melbye, an Aspen criminal defense attorney, also said she was concerned about both the district court and county court schedules once jury trials begin again. The courts will schedule two or three trials at the same time in case one cannot go, which creates uncertainty for attorneys, she said.

“That is hard for us as defense attorneys because you don’t know if you will go or not,” Melbye said.

Another concern is the jury selection process itself, she said. Often the district courtroom is full of people during that process, which likely won’t be possible in the age of COVID.

Nottingham said he may rely on juror questionnaires to try to cut down on the crowds, though Melbye said that is an imperfect solution.

“I really don’t think anything can take the place of live (jury selection),” she said.

COVID-19 also is likely to slow down the jury process, Melbye said, because it will have to be covered as part of selection. In other words, if prospective jurors are too worried about the disease to concentrate on the case at hand, that would be an issue, she said.

The 9th Judicial District usually sees between 3,500 and 5,000 cases per year, 95% of which settle before trial, Cheney said.

“There’s no possible way we could try all those cases,” he said.

Once jury trials start again in Pitkin County, Nottingham said he’s confident he and Pitkin County Court prosecutor Luisa Berne will be able to handle the caseload.

“I think we’re going to be busy,” he said.

The District Court and District Judge Chris Seldin are likely to be even busier as the judge and his staff must balance the criminal trial docket and the civil trial docket, Nottingham said.

As for the public’s duty to serve on juries, the need won’t come all at once. Each courthouse in the district will only conduct one jury trial at a time, he said.


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