Criminal jury trials resume in Sonoma County

Sonoma County residents are again being summoned for jury service this week, three months after the county’s criminal justice system was shut down for the second time in one year by the coronavirus pandemic.

The resumption of trials will give prosecutors and defense attorneys a new tool to reduce the backlog of disputed criminal cases that has built up over the past year while providing people accused of crimes a long-awaited chance to stand before a jury that will decide their innocence or guilt.

Last year, only three local juries delivered verdicts in criminal trials, down from 60 in 2019. In addition, a rare criminal grand jury was convened last October, returning a felony indictment against a former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy.

Though prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants have worked to resolve more cases through settlement agreements when possible, many cases have languished while defendants await trial.

“We’ve waited for a year, and we have many, many cases that need to be litigated,” Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said.

On Monday, 89 people reported for jury selection at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, where prospective jurors can be seated further away from each other in larger rooms than available at the courthouse across the city, court officials said.

Attorneys began questioning prospective jurors for a misdemeanor drunken driving case from 2018. The interview process, called voir dire — a French term for “speak the truth” — is meant to help attorneys from both sides agree on an impartial panel of 12 people plus alternative jurors.

Fifteen jurors requested to be dismissed because of personal hardships, and eight of those were granted, court Executive Officer Arlene Junior said.

Tuesday, attorneys began questioning jury prospects for the trial of four men accused of robbery and double-crossing a man who had apparently agreed to sell marijuana to them at a Camp Meeker house.

There are 10 cases pending trial that are a top priority for prosecutors, either because of the seriousness of the case or because the trial must advance or be dismissed to preserve the constitutional rights of a defendant, Assistant District Attorney Bill Brockley said.

Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said cases have been “stacking up”

“So many cases have been put on the back burner that need to be tried,” Pozzi said.

Sonoma County Superior Court abruptly closed most courtrooms March 16, 2020, two days before Sonoma County’s health officer issued the first local stay-home order preventing most activities other than essential work and errands.

The courtroom closures were meant to keep most people — especially members of the public called for jury service — from entering the courthouse. Jury summonses were canceled or postponed.

While some California counties resumed jury trials in the summer, Sonoma County Superior Court was among those that remained largely closed to the public, apart from defendants making initial and procedural appearances.

But in October, after a five-month hiatus, Sonoma County residents were ordered to report for jury service again.

The first panel of local residents seated since the pandemic shutdown was a secret criminal grand jury with 19 members. They considered evidence against a deputy involved in the death of Bloomfield resident David Ward, returning a felony indictment charging former deputy Charles Blount with involuntary manslaughter and assault under the color of authority.

Three other cases went to trial — misdemeanor drunken driving and domestic violence cases as well as a child sexual abuse case in which a 48-year-old Santa Rosa man, Nathan Christian Wandrey, was handed a 756-year prison sentence after his November conviction.

In December, a spike in coronavirus cases led Presiding Judge Brad DeMeo to again halt jury service.

Since then, many court workers have been vaccinated, including prosecutors, public defenders, court staff and law enforcement. Pozzi said that all staff members in her department who chose to be vaccinated have received both doses.

The resumption of trials could add closure for victims of crimes and people accused of crimes.

One case advancing to trial involves a gang shooting at Jacobs Park in Santa Rosa that wounded four people, including an 11-year-old boy, gathered at the park for soccer matches. The accused shooter, Edward Beltran, who was 17 at the time, was arraigned on the charges this week after a judge ruled he could be tried as an adult.

Another case moving forward involves a Santa Rosa mechanic accused of swindling money from his elderly clients. A judge ruled Monday there was enough evidence to try Suede Barganski for about three dozen felony charges and enhancements involving 20 victims.

Ravitch acknowledged people called for jury duty may be wary of the group setting while the coronavirus pandemic remains a serious concern, but said she was confident in the safety measures taken by the court.

“For the public, it is a little bit daunting because many members of the public have still not received their vaccines, so it’s probably a little bit frightening that they have to come into the courthouse,” Ravitch said. “What they should know is every precaution is being taken to ensure their safety and the safety of all court staff.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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