Jury trials are set to begin in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court again in March after being suspended in January in response to an increase in COVID cases due to the omicron variant — the latest in a series of suspensions since the start of the pandemic that have nearly halted criminal trials completely. And with a large number of delayed cases due to the pandemic, attorneys and court officials have set an ambitious — and possibly unrealistic — trial schedule for next month.
There were no jury trials in 2020, and only a handful in 2021. But when they start up again next month, the system is preparing to handle a massive volume of backlogged cases. According to a court filing by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams’ office earlier this month, there are around 150 jury trials set for March alone — including instances in which multiple trials are set for the same day in the same section of court.
But Danny Engelberg, the deputy defender at the Orleans Public Defenders office, said trying that number of cases in a month isn’t feasible in reality just based on the number of lawyers and jurors that will be available. (The District Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment). Still, Engelberg said that the number is representative of the volume of cases that have languished since the start of the pandemic two years ago.
“That number shows you just how backlogged the system is — which should put a high premium of making sure that we prioritize people who are in custody and who have been waiting for their day in court,” Engelberg said. “We have a massive volume, a massive backlog. A lot of clients who’ve been screaming from the rooftops that they want to go to trial and that they didn’t do what they’re being accused of.”
The public defenders office is currently handling nearly a thousand cases in which their clients are facing “virtual life sentences” — where the number of years would likely mean a person would die in prison if convicted, Engleberg said. And while his office is eager to adjudicate those cases, he also has concerns about the workload his office is facing.
“Our office is overwhelmed … especially with people charged with a crime that can land them in jail for the rest of their life. Hundreds of them. That is a big concern. And so, we will let everyone know if we do not feel like we can be ready and give our clients their full Sixth Amendment rights.”
Another issue that could slow the pace of trials is a lack of jurors. When jury trials were halted in January, it was ostensibly due to the rising COVID case count due to the omicron variant. But Chief Criminal Court Judge Robin Pittman said that there were other considerations as well. One was that the Sheriff’s Office had put a halt on in-person attorney visits at the jail. Another was that during the time the court was reopened for trial, jurors had stopped showing up.
Pittman called it the “biggest challenge” they faced.
“It started off fine, and then little by little, the numbers started to dwindle,” she said. “And jurors weren’t showing up. And so we couldn’t get an adequate venire to be able to do trials.”
In March, the courts could face a similar issue. According to the Criminal District Court’s Deputy Judicial Administrator Shannon Simms, of the 4,000 summonses that were sent out to potential jurors in February for service in March, only 651 responded and are qualified to serve on a jury. Those jurors are divided up into four groups, meaning that on any given day in March, only around 160 jurors will be in the building. For a felony trial, a jury panel consists of 50 potential jurors. For a misdemeanor it is 25.
Pittman declined to say whether or not she was confident there would be sufficient jurors next month to get through the scheduled trials.
“I’m gonna use these words,” she said. “I’m hopeful.”
But Engelberg said that even if there are enough jurors to proceed with trials, he has concerns about whether or not they will be representative of New Orleans as a whole.
“We have our concerns about making sure that there’s a fair and cross-section of the jurors from throughout the community, and not just those who happen to respond to a summons or aren’t as concerned about COVID,” he said. “We need everyone to come and do their duty to sit on juries to be our clients’ jurors.”
The court was unable to immediately provide demographic data on the jurors who have responded to their summonses.