By Crystal Elaine Ellison • October 17, 2020•Writers in Residence
On September 25, 2020, Judge Byrn, the Presiding Judge of Jackson County issued an immediate released that delayed trials in the 16th Judicial Circuit Court. Since March of 2020, there had been no jury trials in the Jackson County Courthouse downtown. October 5, 2020 was scheduled as the official date for trials to resume. Yes, you read that correctly, six whole months without jury trials in one of the busiest counties for prosecution in the U.S. However, Judge Byrn had previously held a Town Hall meeting informing the public that if someone in the courtroom tested positive for COVID-19, the courthouse would revert back to Phase 1 – no in person hearings except under extreme circumstances. On September 25, 2020, the downtown courthouse went back to Phase 1 due to a court employee testing positive for COVID-19. Courthouses must be at Phase 3 before they can resume jury trials. According to the Town Hall, the courthouse must be at each phase a minimum of two weeks with no new COVID-19 cases before moving to the next phase. Therefore, my interpretation of this means that the courthouse will be shut down at a minimum of 6 weeks before jury trials can resume. Did I mention, only two jury trials can be held per courthouse? Just imagine the number of jury trials that are scheduled in a courthouse full of judges with trial dockets. Sometimes about seven or more cases are set for jury trial at a time, in each division.
Do you have a murder trial? No, I have a rape. Well, I have a multiple count sodomy. I have a double murder with two counts of armed criminal action. I have a child sex case. I have a possession case. Is your client in or out of custody? When was your client arraigned? Does your client have a speedy trial motion on file?
These conversations we are forced to have are unacceptable. As I read emails from my colleagues, I am disappointed. I’m perplexed. I’m disappointed at the lax direction that we have been given regarding who will go to trial and who will simply have prepped their cases for a countless number of hours, just to be told the Friday before trial or the morning of trial, that our trial isn’t the lucky chosen one. I understand completely that this pandemic is new to us all, but we deserve more. I can attest for my colleagues on this one: we work tirelessly, sometimes, and for some, often times, neglecting our families to makes sure we are prepared for trial so that our clients can receive the best representation that we can afford them considering our huge obstacles dealing with our enormous caseload. We make huge sacrifices in hopes that our clients receive a fair trial.
My first second-chair jury trial was a double murder case. I was able to second chair one of the best criminal defense attorney’s in the county, Ms. Bremner. That jury trial will always be a reminder of what hard work and dedication looks like. I cannot begin to tell you the sacrifices I made to prepare for both trials. We finished the first trial, submitted the case to the jury, and after days of waiting, the case resulted in a mistrial. Completely not ideal, we were granted only a one-week continuance and resumed thereafter with the second trial. Because of the second trial, I had to postpone renewing my Kansas Bar license due to not being able to attend my scheduled CLE’s. But more importantly, I was not able to celebrate my precious baby boys first birthday.
This is why I’m disappointed.
I’m disappointed because no one’s really aware or understands the many sacrifices we are silently making to prepare for trial. We are truly altruistic, and, in my opinion, quite heroic. While my Kansas Bar license was later renewed, as a mother, it hurts to know, a significant event of celebrating my son’s first year of life, I will never get back. Nonetheless, if I had to choose, I’d still choose our client because at that moment, hard work, dedication and persistence, is what our clients will always deserve.
I say all this to simply say, we deserve better because we work so hard.
Going forward, I hope we as Public Defender’s are given a seat at the table. We handle the majority of cases that are prosecuted out of the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office. Understanding and sympathizing with us regarding our caseload is important when deciding how to move forward with jury trials during this pandemic. It saddens me that we are talking amongst ourselves regarding case priority hypothetical. This is not OK. We work too hard not to know exactly whose case will go to trial. I totally get it. This is new to everyone, but we should work together.