Defendants, victims wrestle with whether justice delayed is justice denied
After months of COVID-19-related delays, trials have finally started to trickle through the Santa Barbara County Superior Court system.
Santa Barbara County Superior Court Chief Executive Officer Darrel Parker said a criminal trial began Monday, but ultimately the defendant pleaded guilty and the judge dismissed the jurors. Mr. Parker did not specify whether the trial occurred in the court’s Santa Barbara, Santa Maria or Lompoc divisions.
“The assembly room, which normally accommodates 150 people, was set up so that social distancing protocols would be followed. This allowed for 29 people to gather for orientation. We had summoned groups of potential jurors to appear in the morning and in the afternoon. The defendant pled guilty, and the jurors were discharged,” Mr. Parker said.
Civil courts began hearing cases over Zoom and conference calls in late May, and criminal courts have begun to hear arraignments and cases with time-sensitive issues both in person and over Zoom.
“Any criminal case can be done virtually without violating a defendant’s constitutional rights so long as the defendant consents to the hearing being conducted in that manner,” Mr. Parker said.
The courts began operating on a limited schedule in mid-March under guidance from the California Judicial Council.
At first, only one criminal arraignment courtroom was available in the Santa Barbara and Santa Maria courthouses for cases where the defendant was being held in County Jail.
The California Judicial Council has since pulled back some of its COVID-19 guidelines.
On June 10, the council rescinded an order allowing courts to extend the deadline for criminal arraignments past the usual 48 hours and ended the $0 emergency bail schedule that kept defendants arrested on misdemeanor and lesser felony charges out of local jails.
Mr. Parker said county courts will continue to use the $0 bail schedule “until further notice” and honored the 48-hour arraignment deadline while the arraignment extension order was effective.
However, at the height of the COVID-19 scare in March, the California Judicial Council suspended jury trials for 60 days statewide and extended the deadlines for criminal trials. Those orders have created a backlog of cases and caused frustration for both defendants and victims of crime.
“If you’ve been accused of a crime and you have not been able to have your day in court to prove that you are not guilty, you feel justice delayed is justice denied,” Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said.
“If you’re a victim of a crime and you’ve been waiting months and months to have the person who victimized you held accountable, you feel justice delayed is justice denied. It goes to both sides of this,” Ms. Dudley said.
She explained that as a trial date stretches further from the date of the incident in question, memories fade, witnesses may become unavailable and juries may give less weight to witness testimony, which may benefit the defense.
Ms. Dudley said she is not waiting longer than usual to file new cases, but in some situations defendants are being sent letters demanding their appearance in court instead of being arrested.
She noted that five district attorneys contracted COVID-19 and 13 public defenders had to go into quarantine in San Bernardino County.
“These are extraordinary times. We certainly have to protect everybody including the people who are in custody or are being released because we know from the Lompoc prison that custody is a place where something like this can spread. We also know Santa Barbara County Jail had only one case of an inmate, and he wasn’t even put in (the) general population,” Ms. Dudley said.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office has since announced that 13 jail staff members and two inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.
Ms. Dudley said victim advocates are keeping in touch with victims so they don’t feel left behind by the case delays.
“Even though the case is not moving as quickly as we’d like it to, we still maintain contact with them. Everyone understands COVID, of course, but we don’t want to make them feel like we’ve deserted them,” Ms. Dudley said.
Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office Chief Trial Deputy Lea Villegas said that justice delayed may be justice denied for defendants who see no resolution for their case on the horizon.
“Being accused of a crime is incredibly disruptive even for those who are released and have a court date (that is) months in the future. These clients have difficulty finding work or housing and for people who cannot afford bail every day that goes by is a day lost with a loved one,” Ms. Villegas said.
“COVID-related delays are causing some of our clients to consider taking plea deals rather than litigating the cases simply because they feel the need for resolution. I don’t think that is conducive to achieving fair outcomes,” Ms. Villegas said.
According to Sheriff’s Office statistics, 427 pre-trial defendants are being held in County Jail. Sixteen of those defendants are over age 65, the high-risk age range for COVID-19.
“The speedy trial right is a fundamental right afforded to our citizens, and right now that is being disrupted and there’s no recourse. We are in this very difficult situation where we want to affirm and assert our clients’ constitutional rights, but we are still dealing with a very real public health situation,” Ms. Villegas said.
She continued that conducting hearings over Zoom video is challenging because it can depersonalize the defendant in the eyes of the court or opposing counsel.
“Confrontation goes both ways,” Ms. Villegas said. “When a client is forced to appear in court through a computer screen, their pixelated image is reduced to a two-inch square.
“The prosecutors don’t have to confront our client’s humanity at all. It perpetuates this depersonalization that undermines the integrity of our justice system.”