State judiciary officials have said that the ongoing ban on Orleans County jury trials is because an engineer’s assessment found the court’s HVAC insufficient to reopen amid the current state of the pandemic.
Now, a defense attorney and the county’s top prosecutor are pointing to the same report as evidence that jury trials should resume.
Their assertion marks the latest volley from the unusual allies — defense attorney David Sleigh, and State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett — against the court system. In July, Sleigh filed motions to dismiss about 30 cases, arguing that the state had been “deliberately indifferent to my clients’ rights to a speedy trial.” With Barrett’s support, he unsuccessfully tried to depose top court officials to ask why they still haven’t resumed normal court operations.
A top court official said the duo’s interpretation of the engineer’s assessment ignores key logistical caveats.
Sleigh and Barrett obtained a copy of the engineer’s report Thursday, which Sleigh shared with VTDigger.
The report, signed by Daniel Dupras of Engineering Services of Vermont and provided to the court in August, says, “[I]t is my opinion that the HVAC system is confirmed to be sufficient,” provided the court follows a list of other protocols, including masking and capacity restrictions.
“I was totally baffled because the engineering studies are in direct contravention to what the judiciary has said about the buildings on their website and in their directives,” Sleigh said.
Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said it’s more complicated than that, however: One of the report’s requirements to reopen was that the third-floor courtroom must be used for both the trial and for jury deliberations.
This part, Grearson said, is what doesn’t work.
Court proceedings are carefully choreographed so that jurors don’t see incarcerated defendants enter the courtroom, as watching a defendant walk in under heavy security might sway the verdict. The Orleans courthouse has a specialized entrance for incarcerated defendants, and the jury generally enters the courtroom after the defendant is already seated.
If there’s no other place for the jury to wait outside, Grearson said, the Orleans court can’t hold jury trials for incarcerated defendants.
Another complicating factor, according to Grearson: Courts are to prioritize scheduling trials for incarcerated defendants before defendants who are out in their community. He said these trial requirements, with the engineering requirements, don’t work well within the physical space.
“The report is one piece of the puzzle of reopening the court,” Grearson said. “It’s a big piece obviously — we couldn’t do anything until we had those — but it’s a matter of taking that report and seeing what can be done in an individual courthouse.”
Grearson said the court is considering ways to hold Orleans jury trials in Caledonia or Lamoille courthouses, but that takes time to implement. It’s also a bigger ask for public defenders and other attorneys to spread their caseloads among multiple locations.
Sleigh, Barrett and Grearson discussed these complications at a meeting Thursday. Yet both Sleigh and Barrett ask why the court can’t hold trials for non-incarcerated defendants in the meantime.
“If we have the capability to be doing some jury trials, there’s no reason why we couldn’t be doing them,” Barrett said in an interview. “So it’s interesting, because we’re in a unique situation where the defense and the state is both advocating to resume jury trials, and the court has just not been transparent with their information, and they haven’t been transparent with their explanation of why we haven’t done so.”
Sleigh and Barrett both said long-term delays on criminal trials are bad for their cases, and the integrity of the judicial process.
Sleigh said the past year-and-a-half has been “a disaster” for his clients awaiting trial. While they’re waiting, the charges affect their ability to apply for jobs or to travel, or generally go about their lives.
“There’s some truth to the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied,” Sleigh said. “I mean, at some point, people just throw their hands up, give up, plead the things they didn’t do, just to get it over with.”
Barrett said that for prosecuting attorneys, long waiting periods makes it more difficult to track down witnesses and have them appear in court.
“The integrity of the state’s cases are sometimes more challenging as the time passes,” Barrett said. “Not to mention, there’s a victim’s right to a speedy trial, and they’re all lacking that as well.”
Barrett said the order of which cases go to trial first is ultimately up to the courts, and can be rearranged.
“I think fundamentally, the court has lacked all transparency with us,” Barrett said. “So it’s hard for us to provide an intelligent explanation of when, and how, we resume jury trials when we’re not being brought in as part of the equation, or not being explained as to why.”
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