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Judiciary Postpones Jury Trials Another Month as COVID-19 Cases Surge

August 8, 2020, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated August 7, 7:12 PM
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Keahuolu Courthouse. PC: Hawai‘i State Judiciary.

The Office of the Public Defender plans to file motions to dismiss cases as the continued postponement of jury trials is in violation of their clients’ speedy trial rights.

Jury trials have been postponed for several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally slated to begin trials on Sept. 1, the Hawai‘i State Judiciary announced it was extending the postponement to after Oct. 2 as coronavirus cases surge statewide.

“Although the severity of the outbreak varies between the different circuits, given the increase in inter-island travel, the capacities of the health care systems on each island, the fluidity of the changes in public health conditions, and guidance from public health officials, an extension of the jury trial commencement date is necessary and prudent at this time,” stated Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald in an order issued Aug. 5.

On Friday, Ann Datta, supervisor over the Kona Public Defender’s Office, says their office is currently working on filing those motions for violation of speedy trial for clients who’ve been sitting in jail for six months or longer awaiting trial.

“It is a concern of our office and we’re concerned about the clients sitting in jail,” Datta said.

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There are 158 pretrial felony prisoners being held at Hawai‘i Community Correctional Facility and 25 pretrial misdemeanor defendants. Datta said the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney (OPA) has the option to dismiss cases without prejudice, which will allow them to refile in the future. But so far, that has not been done.

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“Trials have been delayed for seven months, and the jail is not a safe place to be,” Datta explained.

Additionally, Datta said, with the Grand Jury now meeting the prosecutor’s office will continue to indict individuals who will potentially end up in jail.

While the judiciary worked early to ease the overcrowding at HCCC, the 226-bed facility is now back up to 356 inmates. At its lowest point in May, the jail reduced its population to 233.

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“People are sitting in jail at risk of COVID just because they can’t afford to make bail,” Datta said.

OPA is also concerned about this postponement as it hinders the effective administration of justice.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sheri Lawson disagreed with the public defender’s solution as she believes dismissing cases without prejudice isn’t justice for the community.

“The public defender and defense attorneys have one person’s rights to consider — their client,” Lawson said. “The OPA has multilevel considerations, including the effect and safety of the community. Mass dismissal of cases because the courts are not allowing jury trials is not a reasonable solution.”

Lawson does believe the postponement of trials is a concern quoting the old adage, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

“That is actually a concern that is always present for prosecution — COVID delays or not,” Lawson said.

As the world, state and Big Island community face this unprecedented pandemic, Lawson understands the issues facing the judiciary in trying to determine how to conduct safe jury trials and trusts those in the judiciary are working to solve this problem created by the pandemic.

“With that said, at some point trials need to recommence because victims and defendants have rights that are affected by these delays,” the prosecutor added.

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