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Sonoma County presiding judge halts jury trials due to COVID-19 concerns

Jury trials have again been put on hold in Sonoma County amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, spurring Presiding Judge Brad DeMeo to reinstitute due-process delays to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the courthouse.

Jury trials had resumed in late October after a seven-month moratorium that put a halt to jury summons and other related court procedures. More expansive facilities at the county fairgrounds were used in that brief window for jury selection, and the first group impaneled was a secret criminal grand jury that issued a felony assault indictment against a former sheriff’s deputy accused of causing the death of Bloomfield man detained after a vehicle chase.

But in recent weeks, DeMeo said long lines each morning of people awaiting health screenings to enter the courthouse illustrated the added risks of allowing people to gather with virus cases on the rise.

“My concerns are the spike in positive tests and all the statistical data that the governor has talked about over the last two weeks,” DeMeo said. “I became very concerned about bringing people to the courthouse.”

Two ongoing trials — a misdemeanor protective order violation and a felony case involving drunken driving — will be allowed to run their course, but otherwise no new juries will be seated until after Jan. 31.

DeMeo issued his order Dec. 1, the day after California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye issued a written order allowing presiding judges in each county to postpone trials beyond the normal time allowed under state law. Superior courts in Marin and Mendocino have halted jury service, but other jurisdictions, including Napa and San Francisco, are still conducting jury trials.

The order also extends the ability to hold some proceedings outside courtrooms, allowing defendants to stay in correctional settings and appear virtually for court hearings.

Defendants have the right to a speedy trial. The Chief Justice’s order allows courts to delay the start of trials due to the pandemic emergency.

Local criminal justice leaders lamented the delay.

Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said she told DeMeo she objected to his order when he alerted key courthouse officers about his decision.

“We’re so backlogged,” she said about the mounting number of postponed cases.

Pozzi said she is keenly aware of the risks for all who must gather even in small numbers in a courtroom, adding that public defenders in her office are often at greater risk because their work requires closer contact with clients, including hushed courtroom communications that often happen side by side. But another extended delay is an unacceptable trade-off for clients who need a resolution to proceed with their lives, she said.

“Trying to measure the health of public defender staff against the constitutional rights of our clients is a very difficult balance,” Pozzi said. “Our mission is to preserve constitutional rights, and when we have clients in custody whose cases have continuously been continued and continued and continued …”

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said she believes the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” holds true, and she has been discouraged that measures meant to safeguard people in the courthouse have made it difficult to keep the justice system running at an acceptable pace.

Both Pozzi and Ravitch said their offices have worked closely to resolve as many cases as possible outside the courtroom through plea agreements whenever possible.

“For victims, it simply means they must wait longer for their opportunity to speak their truth,” Ravitch said. “And in the case of a number of individuals charged with crimes, they’re out of custody because of COVID-19, which means they’re still in the community.”

The Sonoma County Jail has reduced its population by about 30% by releasing low-level offenders awaiting trial and other low-risk inmates. On Monday, there were 701 people at the county’s two jails, down from approximately 1,050 inmates on a typical day before the pandemic, sheriff’s officials said.

During the six-week time period when jury trials resumed, just one panel reached a verdict. In that case, a 48-year-old Santa Rosa man was handed a 756-year sentence after the jury convicted him of committing 158 sexual offenses against a child.

Sonoma County Superior Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior said DeMeo and other court officers will meet Wednesday to discuss whether impending stay-home orders for the region, announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week, might require further adjustments.

DeMeo acknowledged the impact on individuals but said he was acting in the best interest of those who work in the courthouse and the public.

Many court matters will continue moving forward with virtual proceedings.

Family and civil courts are entirely virtual and operating at about 90% of the normal workload, DeMeo said. Those proceedings illustrate the success of adjustments to enable virtual hearings, which allow both witness testimony and oral arguments to take place remotely, he said.

DeMeo said he believed the pandemic was leading more parties to pick up the phone, harking back perhaps to “the olden days,” he said in a lighthearted comparison, where the two sides where more apt to talk through cases and develop out-of-court resolutions.

“Most people are anxious to have a legal matter resolved and I think it’s a delay in their personal lives,” DeMeo said. “I know they are anxious, but balanced against the danger of the virus we’re dealing with, I think the danger right now outweighs the delay.”

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

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