Colorado Public Defenders Clash With Court Over Jury Trial Safety

The Associated Press

Denver – Two public defenders in Colorado have refused to proceed with a jury trial in Larimer County over safety concerns, prompting a judge to declare a mistrial in one of the few counties in the state where trials are still taking place during the pandemic.

The two public defenders on Nov. 17 refused to proceed with the jury trial for a man accused of assault and false imprisonment, The Denver Post reported.

As a result, District Judge Stephen Jouard declared a mistrial and ordered the attorneys back to court in December to explain why they should not be held in contempt of court, a charge that carries sanctions up to six months in jail.

Jouard had previously denied the defense’s request for a mistrial, and the attorneys filed an emergency petition with the Colorado Supreme Court challenging the judge’s decision. That petition was denied Nov. 17.

“When everyone else is closed, it’s problematic that the Eighth for some reason has decided that they should remain open and force people to trial,” Maureen Cain, external communications director for the state public defender’s office, told The Denver Post.

The Eighth Judicial District, which includes Larimer and Jackson counties, is one of only four judicial districts in the state with counties in high coronavirus restriction levels that have not suspended jury trials.

Sixteen of 22 judicial districts in the state have suspended all jury trials, and two additional districts have suspended trials in counties where virus cases have surged.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some – especially older adults and people with existing health problems – it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Eighth Judicial District Chief Judge Stephen Howard defended his decision to keep jury trials going and said the court has required masks, social distancing and other safety precautions. The district has successfully completed 24 jury trials since August.

The public defender’s office has disagreed with the chief judge in court filings, taking the stance in one motion that they objected to “going forward with a jury trial in the midst of a global pandemic with trial procedures that risk lives and violate (the defendant’s) fundamental constitutional rights.”

Howard argued that the evidence gets cold, witnesses go away and victims should be able to seek closure. He also said once jury trials are suspended it’s unclear when they will be able to resume.

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