BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) — While almost everyone has a story about how COVID has delayed their job, a family event, or just everyday life, it also has a ripple effect on our justice system.
When the pandemic started in 2020, many cases were put on hold. Since then, the courts have caught up.
But Omicron’s recent ramp-up has created a whole new set of complications and delays.
This was evident during a January hearing in a Brown County courtroom when the defendant failed to show up for court and his attorney did not know where his client was.
The clerk can be heard saying, “We have information from the prison that he is in quarantine.”
Brown County Judge Tim Hinkfuss then addressed the court during the Zoom hearing, saying, “Okay, that was the clerk, and she indicated that Mr. Herrera-Hernandez is in quarantine due to COVID, so we will have to postpone that.”
This procedure could probably be repeated in just about any court in the state right now.
“Literally every week something gets hit by COVID,” says Brown County District Attorney Dave Lasee.
The impact of the delays is probably felt the most in the district attorney’s office. Lasee says it’s almost become a full-time job, in addition to pursuing business, just trying to juggle delayed ones.
But often it happens at the 11th hour, creating even more challenges.
“were trying move forward,” says Lasee. “The problem is we’ve had so many different cases adjourned the morning of the trial or adjourned two days before the trial because COVID came out.”
And with the recent spike in cases of such a contagious variant of COVID, getting an in-person jury trial is extremely difficult.
“It’s hard to imagine that you would have a case with 20 or 30 witnesses, and you have 14 jurors and a defense attorney on one side, the defendant, and you have no we have a problem with COVID,” Lasee describes.
With every delay comes the challenge of finding time to put the deal on the calendar at another time.
But it must be done on top of dozens of other trials that have been delayed since the pandemic began, as well as the new normal caseload.
“The impact of that is that you spend a lot of time spinning your wheels. You spend a lot of time preparing cases that end up not going to trial by jury, which has had an impact on our office’s workload. It also affected us from a budgetary point of view,” says Lasee.
He says the prosecutor’s office blew budget last year for things like subpoenas and witness fees, expert witness travel and other trial preparations.
And 2022 is not starting any better.
But beyond delays and financial impacts, the right of the accused to a speedy and fair trial must also be taken into account.
“The legal right to a speedy trial…one of the ways to mitigate this is to change a signature bond and release a defendant from custody. Obviously, in very violent cases, the court can circumvent that, and we try to prioritize those cases so that they are not thrown out for inappropriate reasons, but it certainly has a potential to exist, ”explains Lasee.
COVID is also impacting juries, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Not only are there instances of a juror falling ill, but sometimes they are suddenly unavailable if they have to stay home to care for a child or other quarantined family member.
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