'COVID-19 and Crime, Courts' Part 2: Pandemic impact on courts in Michiana

NOW: ’COVID-19 and Crime, Courts’ Part 2: Pandemic impact on courts in Michiana

ABC57 Investigates is digging deeper into the pandemic and its impact on crime and courts in a new three-part series.

In part 2, ABC57 uncovered how a lack of jury trials is impacting Michiana, along with an inside look at how local prosecutors are getting the job done in the midst of the pandemic.

Many annual traditions, big events and the majority of every day life as Michiana once knew it has taken a back seat to the pandemic. Crime, on the other hand, is still going strong.

Holding people accountable and keeping the community safe is still top priority, according to St. Joseph County prosecutors.

“I think it’s changed it pretty substantially on how it looks, but it hasn’t changed our ability to be able to do justice for our community,” St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter said.

The 10th floor of the County-City building, home to the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office in downtown South Bend, is a lot emptier now than it was prior to the pandemic.

Work from home is now the new normal for Prosecutor Ken Cotter and the rest of his team, using programs like Zoom for conversations among colleagues.

“In that respect I think we’re above the curve and it’s really been forcing us to be more efficient in our abilities to be able to understand what goes on in our cases,” Cotter said.

“It hasn’t changed the duties at all,” Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Fronk said.

“Our job fundamentally has not changed,” Special Victims Unit Deputy Prosecutor Thomas Fryska said.

At the St. Joseph County courthouse, you will find seats blocked off to observe social distancing, plexiglass dividers and PPE.

“We’re finding that the things that have to occur in pre-trial hearings, don’t require physical presence,” Cotter said.

Alternatively, they are live streaming hearings—a decision that has been nothing but positive for a variety of reasons, according to Cotter.

“The biggest one is the impact on the person accused of the crime in the first place,” Cotter said. “Because before, somebody would have to show up at let’s say they have a hearing at nine o’clock. There might be 15 hearings before theirs.”

That means they could be waiting hours for just about five minutes with the judge.

“Now folks can be at home or at work and then when it’s their turn to be in front of the judge they literally can click a button, do the business they have to be done in court and then go back to work,” Cotter said.

When the pandemic first hit, a big problem to solve was who told hold in jail and for how long, according to Cotter. The team looked at cases of everybody who was detained—that is hundreds and hundreds of cases—to evaluate a couple of key points.

“Were they being detained because we had a concern that they may not show up,” Cotter questioned. “Were they being detained because they were a danger to the community?”

What the team learned was that the vast majority of people were not a danger to anyone, officials were just concerned that they would not show back up to court, Cotter said. However, most people did thanks to the incentive of virtual proceedings.

The next problem the Prosecutor’s Office had to solve was how to even have a trial.

“There are a whole host of difficulties that make trials a lot more difficult nowadays—when we can even do them at all,” Fryska said.

That included finding enough jurors willing to take the risk of getting coronavirus.

Traditionally, only about 10% of cases go to trial and now that number is even lower during the pandemic, according to Cotter.

Back in December, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended jury trials until March 1 after Indiana was hit harder by COVID-19 cases.

“That delay is the biggest concern,” Cotter said. “Not just for the defendant, but also for victims, for the general public and at some point the wheels are going to come to a stop because the delay means that all they’re doing is being backed up, so you’re going to have so many more trials.”

With the backlog building, it draws into question whether that could hurt everyone’s right to a speedy trial.

“Of course that’s a primary concern in all of this,” Fronk said. “But the Supreme Court has ordered that it must take a backseat to the safety of all the participants involved in a trial. So therefore, the right to a speedy trial has been tolled, it hasn’t been an eliminated—it’s just been tolled.”

These decisions come during emergency situations.

“The clock basically just stops ticking on the time frames put in place by criminal rules and statues regarding trials and things like that,” Fronk explained.

The push back of jury trials does not mean the cases are going by unnoticed, according to Cotter.

“The concern about the safety of the community, especially with the impact of the pandemic, kind of keeps me up at night,” Cotter said. “It’s not just because I’m worried about our community, I’m also worried about that individual’s right to have that case disposed of. Those individuals absolutely have a right to not have to just sit in jail. Specifically, sit in jail longer because of this pandemic. Every victim and I think every member of our community, though, also has a right not to have to worry about somebody who has been violent and they have been apprehended to just release them and then they’re going to do it again. So, balancing those two things is probably the most difficult thing that we’re going through today.”

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