‘It is a huge departure from how we try people’ – COVID’s impact on the justice system

FOX Files

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – Judges are doing everything they can to keep cases moving while facing evolving challenges.

In St. Louis County, alleged Catholic Supply Store killer Thomas Bruce was scheduled for a jury trial last October. Bruce is accused of murder and sexual assault at a suburban west county strip mall right before Thanksgiving 2018. Bruce’s trial delay will be at least 10 months. It’s now set for August.

Another St. Louis County case could bring answers in the decades old missing person case of Christian Ferguson. The 9-year-old has been missing for 16 years. His father, Dawan Ferguson, faces two possible trials: one for murder and another for sexual assault. The judge and attorneys have worked through video conferencing to set one of the trials to be among the first out of the gate when juries return.

“People think because there’s no in-person proceedings that there’s no work being done,” St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson Chris King said. “There’s a tremendous amount of work being done and not only in bench trials, there’s a lot of plea agreements being made.”

King pointed out the example of David Miller, who is the first person to be convicted since the COVID shutdown. Miller was convicted in a sex case after a video bench trial.

Evidence played on the video conferenced trial include a police interview with Miller, who talked to a police detective about why he was naked in an alleyway watching a woman in her backyard.

“When I ducked back in my car, I’m pretty sure she didn’t see my body, you know, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t see my (private part), you know,” Miller said in the interview. “Whenever I seen the car in the alley, I took off.”

King has been watching the video conferenced trials that have just begun. He’s noticed that judges are repeatedly asking defendants if they’re sure they want to waive their right to a jury trial.

“It is a huge departure from how we try people on criminal charges and there’s reason to be cautious about how we’re doing it,” King said.

Trial attorney Paul E. Sims says he has clients who might be out of jail if not for the pandemic.

“I’ve got five guys right now that I believe have a legitimate shot of walking out of the courtroom if we – once we get to trial,” he said.

Sims fears reopened courtrooms will bring new challenges with selecting jurors.

“I have to be assured that you’re going to pay attention to the evidence that’s presented at the trial – not if this person next to you coughed,” he said.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer added the importance of trials, “They are such a part and parcel of this courthouse. We do so many jury trials compared to other jurisdictions.”

Stelzer talked about how they’re choosing which jury trials will go first and how the time of incarceration is one of many variables, including, “…the age of the case, out of town witnesses, whether or not they made a request for a speedy trial under the constitution, so all those factors will go into how we prioritize this. And it’s not just criminal cases, we have civil cases to o we have to factor into the equation.”

Part of their planning involves how also to safely return jurors to the courtroom.

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