NORTH ADAMS — It has been 15 months since jurors considered a case in Northern Berkshire District Court, seizing up the normal wheels of justice. That’s about to change. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court says restrictions on jury trials, other than masking requirements, end July 12.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S. in March 2020, courts closed and jury trials were put on hold. Since then, jury trials have been limited across the county.
Three jury trials have been held this year in all of Berkshire County — one Superior Court case and two juvenile cases, all at the Pittsfield Holiday Inn & Suites, according to Jennifer Donahue, a spokesperson for the state’s Trial Court. Cases of those in custody will continue to be prioritized, the SJC said in a policy statement last week.
In the Northern Berkshire District Court, the last jury trial was held in February 2020. About 50 cases await a jury trial in the court, according to Clerk-Magistrate Timothy Morey.
“There’s no question there’s a backlog,” he said. “We have some cases that are a couple years old now.”
Slowdowns, and the lack of trials altogether in some courts, have created backlogs and uncertainty, some in the legal system say.
“The absence of jury trials has had a tremendous impact on the practice of criminal defense,” said Ryan Smith, a staff attorney at the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Pittsfield, which defends people in Berkshire county courts who can’t afford a lawyer. He spoke from his experience and not for the CPCS. He was “heartened” to hear the SJC’s announcement that jury trials will resume fully.
Smith has worked at the CPCS for a decade, and primarily handles felony defense and has cases waiting for jury trials.
He is handling a case from January 2020 involving a woman in her late 60s charged with an OUI.
“The case was already two years old. That case has gone another year without jury trial being available,” he said. “This has been something weighing on her, and she can’t resolve it because she needs a jury trial.”
During the past year, the defendant has had “life-altering” health issues, Smith said.
“There certainly have been some significant complications that have had a real-world effect on our clients,” he said.
One of Smith’s clients, facing domestic violence allegations, has been detained for more than a year while held under the dangerousness statue. A prosecutor can request a hearing when they believe the defendant is too dangerous to the community or their victim. If a judge agrees, the defendant can be held for as long as 120 days in district court cases and 180 days in superior court cases.
Smith said people have been held longer during the pandemic.
“What’s happened is, by suspending the right to a speedy trial, it’s caused everything to go on and on without any deadlines,” Smith said. “Now, I don’t fault the local courts or local judges for this. And obviously, the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges. But, what’s happened is, it’s caused the indefinite detention of, I would say, certainly one of my clients — but I would think hundreds of clients, defendants, across the commonwealth.”
The pause on the time limit for speedy trial deadlines will be lifted Oct. 1, the SJC said in its recent announcement.
Before the pandemic, there already was a backlog of court cases, according to Berkshire District Attorney spokesperson Andrew McKeever.
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington took office in 2019. In March that year, 2,305 cases were pending in the county. Her office decreased that backlog to a count as low as 1,834 in May 2019, McKeever said. Two months before the pandemic, in January 2020, there were 2,017 cases pending, and by June this year, that number had increased to 2,293, according to McKeever.
“Hopefully, in the fall, we will be able to bring that backlog back down,” McKeever said. “The issue is that we went a year without jury trials. We have some cases that were in the pipeline that would probably have been resolved during that period, but they are not resolved.”
Harrington was not available for an interview, McKeever said.
Even without jury trials, prosecutors sought ways to move cases forward, McKeever said.
“During the shutdown, there were still a lot of motions. There were a lot of pleas. We were still able to negotiate pleas,” he said. “There was still a lot of work happening.”
Delays can be difficult for victims, he said, leaving them “feeling disappointed with the system that it hasn’t moved quickly enough.” Delays in trials often work to the defendant’s favor, McKeever said. “It can be harder to get witnesses back into court for the trial. They could forget things. Or they could be not as fresh as they were prior.”
Richard Taskin, a North Adams defense attorney, agrees. When it comes to winning cases, delays generally help defendants.
“No question,” he said. “I think that’s a universal truth in that memories fade. [You’re] often dealing with a transient population. Cellphones change.”
Since the pandemic’s onset, Taskin has represented clients at bench trials overseen by a judge, but not at jury trials. It’s not possible to conduct a jury trial by Zoom, Taskin said.
“Both juries, and I suppose defendants and victims, want to be able to eyeball their accusers. Defendants want to be able to eyeball their accusers. Juries are making determinations about credibility. I think that’s a very difficult thing to do without having that person in the room,” he said.
Unlike Smith, none of Taskin’s clients is in custody, which, he said, is rare for him. Still, he said he hasn’t been able to tell clients when their trials will begin.
“Again, I don’t think it will take long to catch up. ... But, the point is, there’s a backlog,” he said.
Morey said jury trails will start again in his North Adams court Sept. 13. Cases pending jury trials are scheduled out no later than February 2022.