The COVID-19 pandemic has created a significant backlog of criminal cases in the territory’s courts, but it failed to derail the system and is spurring a major upgrade.
The federally funded overhaul of the physical facilities on both St. Croix and St. Thomas, including the installation of enhanced electronics, is expected to be complete by the end of this year. The intent is to make the system more amenable to virtual functioning and, in the process, improve both speed and safety.
The facilities were not designed for social distancing. In particular, a jury deliberation room traditionally encourages a group to come together, not separate.
While some businesses and government agencies were able to accommodate COVID-driven changes relatively quickly, in the territory’s Supreme and Superior Courts, “those little things became huge challenges,” Kevin Williams, assistant administrator of the courts, said last week in an interview with the Source.
Nevertheless, he stressed that “the courts have never closed.” Motions have been filed; conferences and hearings have been held remotely; defendants and prosecutors have worked out plea arrangements that avoided trial; judicial rulings have been issued.
What didn’t happen for nearly 20 months between March 2020, when the territory shut down because of the health emergency until just a few weeks ago, was a jury trial in Superior Court.
In October, the territory held its first jury trial since the crisis began. The second was last week.
Meanwhile, as the territory’s top prosecutor, Attorney General Denise George said in a separate interview, “Crimes never stopped occurring. … You’re just imagining the build-up.”
“Undoubtedly,” the hiatus in jury trials contributed to a backlog, Williams said, but it’s difficult to quantify its size.
He provided some figures that help illustrate the seriousness of the situation.
On Dec. 31, 2019 – before the pandemic – there were a total of 177 cases pending a jury trial, 142 on St. Croix and 35 on St. Thomas.
On Dec. 31, 2020 – about nine months into the pandemic – there were 471 cases awaiting jury trial, 329 on St. Croix and 142 on St. Thomas.
There was also a significant increase in the number of jury cases filed in 2020 over those filed in 2019. Some observers suggest that may in part be attributed to a defense strategy to request a jury trial to intentionally delay action, and others attribute it to an uptick in crime.
Either way, the increase in jury cases filed doesn’t fully account for the rise in the number of cases still awaiting trial. In 2019 the percentage of cases pending at the end of the year compared with the total filed for the year was 71 percent. In 2020, that figure was 94 percent.
As COVID surged, subsided, surged, stabilized, and surged again, with health experts learning more about its spread methods and with science developing defenses against it, responses continuously changed. The territory’s court system website, www.vicourts.org, lists chronologically the orders issued to address the crisis from the spring of 2020 until now. There are 19 from the executive branch (which applies to everyone), 21 from the Supreme Court, which covers both the higher and lower courts, and six specifically to Superior Court.
The site also contains a narrative from Chief Justice Rhys Hodge in its 2020 Annual Report describing the courts’ efforts to function while following health guidelines.
Williams said that making sure both staff and the public were protected was a top priority. Early on, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. funneled $1 million worth of federal pandemic funds to the courts. That allowed for periodically sanitizing the court buildings in both districts, for contact tracing, for issuing personal protective equipment such as plexiglass shields and masks and gloves, for an air purification system, and other immediate enhancements.
For brief periods, physical access to court buildings was curtailed. But for most of the time, there has been limited or full access. All staff and anyone visiting the courts were – and still are – required to wear a mask and submit to a temperature check upon entry.
“We had every sector of the court impacted” by COVID at one time or another, Williams said, but most of those who caught the disease were infected outside of their work. There has been “very little spread” within the courts to date.
Clerk of Superior Court Tamara Charles, who joined Williams in the Source interview, said pandemic-related delays primarily affected criminal cases. Civil cases, including small claims, evictions, and bench trials (those decided by a judge), continued without major interruption. Many proceedings were held via Zoom.
The courts are sensitive to the fact that criminal cases involve persons whose “liberty is at stake,” Williams said. So, “the court has prioritized those criminal cases.”
In addition to the initial $1 million grant, the local court system now has $2.9 million in federal funding to overhaul its buildings and modernize its proceedings in ways that promote social distancing.
Under federal strictures, the grant must be used by Dec. 31 of this year. Work is ongoing and about 40 percent complete, he said, adding, “We feel confident that we will get it done.”
Superior Court has a total of 14 courtrooms between its St. Thomas and St. Croix facilities. The Supreme Court has just one courtroom, located on St. Thomas, although it maintains offices on St. Croix.
A total of 18 rooms, including courtrooms, are slated for renovations. Williams said six rooms were completed as of last week, and another two are expected to be finished this week, despite the Thanksgiving holiday.
Apex Construction has the contract for St. Thomas; AVI Construction is doing the work for St. Croix. Justice AV Solutions, Inc., a third company, is installing audio-visual equipment and upgrading existing technology.
The renovation includes the installation of display screens in courtrooms so evidence can be presented visually rather than being passed hand-to-hand to jury members. Trial participants are also separated and protected by plexiglass screens.
Meanwhile, the courts have been moving more and more toward electronic communications that minimize physical contact.
Attorneys are now required to file all motions in Superior Court electronically, something that was already a requirement in the Supreme Court, Williams said. Members of the public still have the option to file paper documents.
The court is also set up to accept online payments of fines and fees. And it has integrated its system with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles so motorists renewing their registrations can check online for any outstanding tickets at Superior Court – an option that Williams said is proving popular with the public.
The push to move the criminal docket involves more than technology improvements.
“The court has put on quite a robust schedule,” the attorney general said. That means her short-staffed office is going to be extra busy.
Ideally, the V.I. Justice Department should have 30 prosecutors, she said. That allowed two attorneys assigned to cases in each courtroom and specialized attorneys handling special victims, sexual assault/child victims, and homicide cases.
In her fiscal year 2022 budget, George asked for funding for 30 positions, but the Legislature approved funding only for 20, leaving her 10 short.
Prosecutors have been preparing cases while jury trials were suspended, she said, but still, an accelerated schedule may be “really a challenge.” Individual prosecutors may find themselves responsible for more than one case a week.
That said, George welcomed the return of jury trials. It’s always best to prosecute a case sooner rather than later when memories dim. “The time delay,” she said, “is not a benefit to prosecutors.”
Williams and Charles acknowledged there had been some trouble restarting jury trials because of a lack of cooperation from the public.
“It has always been challenging to get jurors to come in and serve,” Williams said.
In late September, the court’s jury management division reached out to prospective jurors with orientation meetings at theaters on both St. Thomas and St. Croix.
“The participation was very low, which was maybe not shocking but very disappointing,” he said. Further, the second jury trial held after the lockdown was delayed several hours because of a no-show juror.
He’s hopeful the court’s improvements – including an upgrade to its software that allows for electronic check-in by jurors – will convince people to serve.