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Jury trials resume in Larimer County court, backlog of cases reaches over 300

LARIMER COUNTY- With Larimer County remaining in the medium-risk category for COVID-19 and vaccines continuing to be administered, the district court is ready to bring back a constitutional right that was put on the backburner for safety: jury trials.

After being suspended last November until last week, the 8th Judicial District Court in Fort Collins has restarted jury trials with new precautions and changes to keep people safe.

Kristin Sheeran, a court executive with the Judicial Administration Office, said the decision was made by Chief Judge Susan Blanco. The chief judge decided to resume jury trials as soon as the court and the health department devised a way to ensure the safety of those weighing in on justice.

“I can’t even begin to tell you the hundreds of hours we have spent (on this),” Sheeran said, later adding, “This is not something you jump right back into.”

Rules in the court for those called in to jury service will follow much of what the country has become accustomed to: social distancing, hand sanitizing stations, mask requirements and notices around the building to ensure these rules are followed.

A video posted by the court explains seating has been changed within the courtrooms to adhere to this during trials. Juror pools will be smaller, selected jurors will sit further apart and separate, more sizeable rooms will be used for deliberation. According to the video, for 12-person juries two jury rooms or, potentially, an entire courtroom will be used to safely deliberate on the case.

“Given the current environment I understand people might be concerned about being summoned for jury service,” Blanco said in the video. “I want you to know that we care about your safety and health and have implemented aggressive policies to assure a safe and comfortable environment during the jury trial process.”

“From the time you enter the building, you’ll be directed to follow protocols and practices designed to prevent COVID-19,” Kori Wilford, communications specialist with the health department, said in the video.

The full video can be found on the 8th Judicial District Court’s website.

District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin said the DA’s office is excited to see the return of jury trials as it means “the wheels of justice can continue turning.” He added the shutdown of trials over the winter, while necessary, created a burden on prosecutors’ ability to resolve cases and fulfill their role in ensuring community safety.

“We have many victims who have been waiting a long time for justice and accountability and many defendants who are due their day in court,” McLaughlin wrote in an email to the Reporter-Herald.

“I believe the Chief Judge has instituted thoughtful and safe trial procedures and we’ve already had a handful of our deputy DAs back in trial, with more trials expected to start this week. We continue to work hard to fairly resolve cases through negotiated resolution to mitigate the backlog and are prepared to try cases when justice demands.”

And while Sheeran said the court will be staggering trials to separate people even further, there is no shortage of cases to get through as there are hundreds backlogged because of the suspension on jury trials.

Sheeran said that there are 129 jury trials set from now until the end of the year in county court and another 231 in district court.

“We want to maintain and ensure everyone’s safety … while also providing access to justice,” Sheeran said.

Sheeran said that part of the hardship going forward for the courts will be prioritizing what to do first with so many cases being pushed back and respecting everyone’s right to a speedy trial. She added this is especially tough since the court is already short on courtrooms compared the the number of judges they have.

Despite this, Sheeran said the entire team at the court has been working together to make sure not only that jury trials can be set up but so that they are done safely.

“This is a positive thing and we are hoping we will remain successful,” Sheeran said, adding this will not only be to a benefit of this sitting in jail, but also to the victims in each case to receive justice.

Austin Fleskes for Reporter-Herald
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