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Crime & Courts

Jury trials in Alaska postponed until Sept. 1 due to continued COVID-19 concerns

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Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger today signed an order that will postpone all jury trials in the state until at least Sept. 1.

Jury trials had previously been suspended until July 6. “The number of active COVID-19 cases in Alaska remains high," the order states. Alaska saw 238 active COVID-19 cases over the weekend, a new high for the state. That number dropped Monday to 235.

The order also cites space limitations in courtrooms as a reason for the continued postponement.

Courtrooms are “barely adequate to accommodate the parties, attorneys, court personnel, and a standard jury panel with adequate social distancing,” the order states.

The rooms are not large enough to allow for the public or for a large jury selection assembly to social distance, it states.

“We are requiring people to come to court. The parties, the attorneys — they have to come to court. So we are very sensitive about the fact that it is not voluntary," Bolger said. "We have an obligation to keep people safe.”

Jury trials were first postponed beginning March 16 by a similar special order given shortly after Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a public health disaster emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

More special orders soon followed from Bolger, suspending various court proceedings and changing the operations of state courts. One order even temporarily changed the state’s rule that guarantees defendants a speedy trial.

“Right now the Supreme Court has a very difficult job in balancing a defendant’s constitutional rights to trial by jury with the need of the state to prosecute crimes in the public interest with protecting a very vulnerable public,” said Anchorage lawyer Jeffrey Robinson, who is former president of the Alaska Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Robinson said that holding a trial during the pandemic presents “extraordinary logistical issues.”

If a court staff member, a witness, a juror member or even a family member of someone participating in trial proceedings came down with COVID-19 symptoms, it would mean a total disruption and postponement of the trial, Robinson said.

“It is an incredibly reasonable measure in the best interest in my opinion of everyone who appears before court,” he said.

But some people who are charged with more serious crimes and cannot leave on bail will end up waiting in jail longer for a trial, Robinson said. That some defendants won’t receive a timely trial by jury is unfortunate, but the pandemic has raised “extraordinary circumstances," he said.

According to a previous order from May 20, grand jury proceedings — which determine whether criminal charges should be initiated — were allowed to resume June 1, although it allows for some of the proceedings to take place remotely.

Those proceedings are smaller, with confidential hearings and fewer participants, Bolger said.

Other types of hearings are primarily being held over telephone or via video conference, he said.

How jury trials will be prioritized for rescheduling once proceedings resume is not yet decided, but "that is really a serious question that we will meet with judges about and practitioners about,” Bolger said.

Alaska Court System staff is working on ways to resume jury trials safely, Bolger said. Face coverings and social distancing will be required when people physically come to court.

“We want to do this right and we really have just one chance to do it right and make sure everyone is protected,” he said.

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