If you blinked, you probably missed the very brief return of jury trials to Albany County.
It was just one trial, a parole violation case before acting Supreme Court Justice Roger McDonough in the Albany County Judicial Center. Only the judge, the parties, court staff, sheriff’s deputies and jurors were allowed inside the courtroom. Jurors sat socially distanced on the courtroom benches to limit the spread of COVID-19.
And this was going to be the way of trials in the courthouse, at least temporarily, going forward. Observers could watch the proceedings remotely from a room in the historic Albany County Courthouse.
Alas, no sooner had the new system been up and running for the one trial when Lawrence Marks, the state’s chief administrative judge, announced on Nov. 13 that due to the rising cases of the deadly coronavirus, jury trials must once again be suspended. That went into effect three days later.
So what now?
The fallout of the pause impacts everyone in the court system but particularly defendants who are locked up without bail as they await trial. It leaves it unclear when they will go to trial and raises the question of whether the delay will last until vaccines are available.
In the meantime, they will be in jail where, due to COVID-19, they cannot see visitors.
The concern is they may not see justice either.
“It will obviously delay a defendant’s right to trial by jury; with all that encompasses,” Albany County Public Defender Stephen Herrick, a retired county judge, told Law Beat. “A client who is out of custody can much better assist in their defense. They have better access to their attorneys to best prepare their case, reviewing discovery as it becomes available. As the saying goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’”
Last Monday, Chief Justice Janet DiFiore said in her weekly address during the pandemic that before the pause, there were 47 trials taken to verdict outside of New York City since early September and another dozen in New York City in the prior month. The judge noted that ongoing jury trials and grand juries would be allowed to continue to completion and that new bench trials and hearings could continue virtually unless other permitted by deputy chief administrative judges.
New grand juries are postponed until further notice.
“We are taking these steps in response to the increasing COVID positivity rate, the growing number of communities experiencing COVID-19 clusters, the advice of our epidemiologist who has reviewed our relevant data, and the governor’s latest directive significantly restricting in-person gatherings in commercial and residential settings,” DiFiore said. “With the COVID metrics clearly trending in a negative direction, and with Thanksgiving and the year-end Holidays fast approaching, it would not be wise or prudent for us to continue scheduling jury trials and summoning large numbers of jurors, lawyers, litigants and witnesses into our courthouses at this time.”
DiFiore added: “…our number one priority is the health and safety of our judges, our professional staff and the public we serve. We will not put anyone’s health and well-being at risk, and we will do everything in our power to help prevent the further spread and resurgence of COVID-19.”