A two-day jury trial in Barton County District Court last month signaled the end of more than a year with no trials. Barton County Attorney Levi Morris said there are trials scheduled throughout the month of June.
Jury trials came to a stop last year in Kansas because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In August, the Kansas Supreme Court issued two administrative orders based on a report from the Ad Hoc Jury Task Force, which recommended best practices for how to restart trials with coronavirus safety in mind.
“Many variables impact which task force recommendations a court will need to adopt, including the physical layout of the court, local needs and available resources,” said Chief Justice Marla Luckert. “The mandates and guidance document articulates the Supreme Court’s expectations to provide for juror education and safety, and public and media access to proceedings.”
Trials were allowed to start in the fall but few took place. On March 31 of this year, Gov. Laura Kelly signed House Bill 2078, suspending the provisions of the speedy trial statute in the state through March 2023 in all criminal cases.
Barton County Attorney Morris commented at the time that it was a welcome piece of legislation “to ensure that criminals didn’t benefit from the pandemic.”
He added, “Because crime didn’t shut down during the pandemic, a backlog of over 1,000 cases needing jury trials built up across the state. In Barton County we are currently scheduling jury trials and likely will have no problem catching up on the backlog and processing the new crimes before the May 2023 deadline arrives.”
A few trials were scheduled but ended up being called off due to continuances or pleas. Then, on April 26 and 27, there was a misdemeanor jury trail for a man charged with driving under the influence back in 2018. He was found not guilty.
Counties were required to submit plans to show how they would maintain social distancing and other safety protocols.
“The plan that was approved for resuming jury trials calls for separating jurors out 6 feet or more,” Morris said. “To make that happen, the jury was seated where the public/crowd normally sits. The witnesses were seated in the jury box, and the public was allowed to watch the video via the internet.
“Until further notice, we will conduct trials in the same way, with the jury in the public area spaced 6 feet apart, and broadcasting on the internet.”
Morris noted that another misdemeanor DUI jury trial was scheduled for April 28, but the defendant waived his jury trial rights. Another trial was scheduled in May but the defendant agreed to a negotiated plea the day before it was to begin, after the defense attorney unsuccessfully sought to continue the trial.