ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The suspension of Alaska’s felony jury trials for more than six months has created a backlog of cases and left some Alaskans in limbo awaiting court dates.
Misdemeanor trials are set to resume in November, but there is no schedule for resuming felony trials with larger juries and less room for social distancing, Alaska Public Media reported Monday.
Alaska’s court officials say they are trying to balance a responsibility to public health versus an obligation to timely resolutions for defendants and victims.
“Those are very, very serious constitutional and statutory rights,” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger said. “They’re something that should be seriously weighed when we consider whether to restart jury trials, even though the coronavirus is still present in our community.”
Anchorage District Attorney Brittany Dunlop said moving to trial as quickly as possible is preferred, and delays in trying murder cases tend to help the defense.
“Our evidence doesn’t usually get better over time,” Dunlop said. “It’s as good as it’s going to get when people’s memories are fresh and we recently seized and tested the thing, the weapon or whatever.”
The hold on felony jury trials has created a massive backlog and clearing those cases may require more plea agreements, Dunlop said.
A common complaint from defense attorneys recently is that coronavirus restrictions on jails have created difficulties for lawyers trying to discuss deals with their jailed clients, while some inmates have complained about their cases being prolonged while they are incarcerated.
As cases pile up, the right to a speedy trial before a jury puts added pressure on the courts to restart trials, Bolger said.
“I don’t want to leave the impression that we would make a hasty decision, but definitely those are important things to consider, and we are taking that into consideration,” Bolger said.
For most people, the new 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.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.