El Paso County this week resumes jury trials after nearly four months — but plans could change rapidly if COVID-19 numbers begin to rise, the county’s top judge says.
“Jurors’ safety — everybody’s safety in the courthouse — is of paramount concern,” said 4th Judicial District Chief Judge William Bain. “If we assess that the risk is greater than it currently is, then we would reassess our jury plan.”
A sharply reduced docket of five District Court trials is on tap for July, about a quarter of the monthly average compared to 2019. Ten county court trials are scheduled for the month, including four this week. Teller County will have its first trial July 21.
Resuming trials in Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek required a waiver from Colorado Supreme Court Justice Nathan B. Coats, whose statewide ban remains in effect. The 4th Judicial District was the first to receive a variance last month, after submitting a safety plan crafted in cooperation with Dr. Leon Kelly, the county’s deputy medical director.
Three more judicial districts have since received permission to resume trials in July. They are the 10th Judicial District in Pueblo; the 18th Judicial District, which spans Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties; and the 13th Judicial District, which covers seven counties in northeast Colorado: Kit Carson, Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington and Yuma.
The first major trial to be held in El Paso County is that of Marco Garcia-Bravo, who goes on trial July 13 in the 2017 gang slayings of two Colorado Springs teenagers, Coronado High School students Natalie Cano-Partida, 16, and Derek Greer, 15.
Accused of being one of two triggermen, Garcia-Bravo faces the possibility of life in prison without parole if convicted of first-degree murder. The trial is expected to last eight to 10 weeks.
The easing restrictions in the El Paso County courts come amid an alarming rise of coronavirus infections in other parts of the U.S., leading some states, including Texas and Florida, to reinstate safety measures they had previously relaxed.
“I definitely recognize there are some places around the country that are seeing a big resurgence, but El Paso County does not fall into that category,” Bain said, calling infection rates here largely flat over the past couple months.
Bain said he monitors El Paso County’s numbers on a daily basis and remains confident that jury trials can safely resume with precautions in place.
Most court room players — attorneys, court staff, defendants, jurors, media, the public, victims and witnesses — will be required to wear masks during trials, according to the variance. Only judges will be exempt, provided they are at least 6 feet from other parties in the courtroom.
Attorneys are to remain at their tables while questioning prospective jurors, under the variance. The judge and attorneys are to use a microphone to amplify their voices. The microphone will be covered in plastic wrap, and a new piece will be placed over it between each speaker, according to the release. Social distancing measures are to be implemented throughout the courthouse and courtroom.
"Certainly, if any jurors find themselves vulnerable to COVID all they need to do is ask to reschedule and we will be happy to reschedule their service," Bain said.
Depending on how trials go in July, Bain said he would consider increasing the number of trials held in August.
One barrier is jury selection. Under normal circumstances, as many as 325 people are summoned to a jury selection room at a time, to pick panels for both district and county court cases. Now, though, the jury assembly room has been limited to 50 people, making it possible to pick only one jury at a time.
No other room in the courthouse is large enough to accommodate prospective jury pools, Bain said.
“There’s just going to be a limited number of trials we can do until a vaccine is found,” he said.
Prioritizing which cases go to trial first is done with input from the chief judge, the chief county court judge, the public defender’s office, the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Colorado Springs chapter of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Bain said.
They consider the age of the cases, how close each is to speedy trial deadlines, whether defendants are in or out of custody, among other factors.
The courthouse also finalizing plans to host video appearances from jail by incarcerated defendants for “perfunctory” hearings, Bain said.
“Sheriffs around the state are working on updating their technology so that those relatively short hearings can be done by video,” Bain said.
In El Paso County, technology upgrades at the jail are expected to cost $26,000, funded by a $13.6 million distribution the Sheriff’s Office received as part of the county’s share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Estimating the number of trials that would have been held during the pandemic closure is difficult, Bain said, because the vast majority of trial settings are averted by plea deals or dismissals. Based on last years total of 245 District Court trials, he estimated that 75 felony trials that would have been held were instead postponed.