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Jury trials postponed in La Plata County as COVID-19 cases rise

Hearings were expected to resume mid-April
Sixth Judicial District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey R. Wilson postponed jury trials for an additional three weeks amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Jury trials, which were expected to pick back up in mid-April have again been put on hold as La Plata County sees a rise in COVID-19 cases.

District Court Judge Jeffrey Wilson issued an order Monday that postpones jury trials for three weeks. On May 6, county court trials in La Plata and San Juan counties may resume. On May 10, district court trials in those two counties can resume.

Because there is no courthouse in Archuleta County, and because of social-distancing requirements, jury trials will not resume there until further administrative orders, Wilson said.

Colorado Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Nathan B. Coates on March 16, 2020, suspended all jury trials throughout the state.

In La Plata County, it wasn’t until late July before Wilson issued an administrative order to start jury trials again, taking into account COVID-19 protocols, such as social distancing and mask wearing.

The problem in restarting trials, Wilson said, was only one courtroom within the La Plata County Courthouse has enough space for prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, victims and jury members to pull off a trial.

The first and only trial since the pandemic hit in March 2020 began in mid-August for Rodney Keller, a Pagosa Springs man who was accused of sexually assaulting a girl in Bayfield in 2018.

Though the case ultimately ended in a mistrial after jurors could not come to a unanimous decision to convict, court officials were encouraged that the trial was not derailed by issues related to COVID-19.

Then, the trial for Mark Redwine, accused of killing his son, Dylan, got underway, but it was ultimately called off after concerns of COVID-19-like symptoms were raised by the Vallecito man’s defense attorneys.

Ever since, trials have been suspended in the 6th Judicial District, which covers Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties, and all the while, crime has not ceased, causing a massive backlog that will ultimately need to be addressed.

As of late March, in just La Plata County, an estimated 115 trials are on the docket for the rest of the year – 67 in county court and 48 in district court. Not all of those cases will go to trial – some reach plea agreements, others are dismissed.

In late March, with COVID-19 cases appearing to level off, Wilson issued an administrative order to restart trials, with county court cases resuming April 15, and district court cases April 26.

In his order Monday, Wilson said the court anticipated new infections would decrease with the end of ski season and spring break, as well as more people within the community getting vaccinations.

“Unfortunately, the daily rate of new infections has increased, not decreased as expected,” Wilson wrote.

Indeed, cases in La Plata County have been increasing since the end of March, according to San Juan Basin Public Health. In the last two weeks, the county has reported nearly 250 new cases.

In all of March, just 369 positive cases were confirmed.

“Our one-week case incidence rates in both counties are trending toward the highest levels we’ve observed since the beginning of January,” Brian Devine, SJBPH deputy incident commander said this week. “This is concerning.”

Wilson wrote he canceled jury trials to protect the health of residents, as well as jurors, litigants and staff members.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Aug 2, 2021
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