Colorados backlog of COVID-delayed jury trials is shrinking, but lingers

The jury trial that attorney Jonathan Booker started last week was a long time coming.

His client, charged in 2019, waited three years for the misdemeanor case to go to trial in Denver because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed thousands of criminal cases across the state as courts at first shut down jury trials completely, then slowly re-started them amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The pandemic-induced delays created a massive backlog of cases awaiting jury trials in 2021, and while court operations have since largely returned to normal, a historically-high backlog remains and some jurisdictions are still strained by the logjam, attorneys told The Denver Post.

“We’re digging out, but we still have a ways to go,” said Brian Mason, district attorney for the 17th Judicial District, which covers Adams and Broomfield counties.

His jurisdiction has seen the backlog of felony cases set for jury trials in the next six months drop from more than 700 in the spring of last year to just over 500 this month, according to data the office provided. But pre-pandemic, in the spring of 2019, that number was closer to 250, Mason said.

“One of the main reasons we’ve made progress is we’re back in person and the trial courtrooms are up and running, and we haven’t had to have the same restrictions on the number of jurors coming in,” he said, adding that with more cases going to trial, defendants are also more likely to accept plea deals, which has chipped away at the backlog as well.

Statewide, the number of cases awaiting jury trials dropped from about 14,600 in 2021 to 11,200 earlier this month, said Rob McCallum, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Department. He noted that about 10,200 of those trials are scheduled to happen in 2022, though some will be delayed or end in plea agreements instead.

In 2020, Colorado felony cases on average lasted 184 days from the arrest and filing of charges to the disposition of the case, according to data provided by the Colorado Judicial Department, although that number only includes cases that have been closed. That’s longer than other recent years: in 2018, felony cases lasted an average 148 days, and in 2021, about 121 days.

Across the state, 93% of felony cases filed in 2018 have been closed, while only 80% of cases filed in 2020 and 60% of cases filed in 2021 have been closed, according to the data.

Typically, the state conducts only about 2,700 jury trials annually. The vast majority of cases are resolved through guilty pleas.

Earlier in the pandemic, some prosecutors tried to clear cases and jails by offering plea deals they might not have offered before the global health crisis. Those sorts of “sweetheart deals” are no longer happening, said Denver defense attorney Kimberly Diego.

“That ship has sailed,” she said. “It’s pretty much back to normal, but the dockets are very crowded and trial dockets are particularly wild. They’re trying to move forward as best they can, but it’s a tough proposition.”

But cases are moving forward again, attorneys said. The backlog is no longer growing. Booker doesn’t expect any of his other clients to face wholesale COVID-related delays like the man who waited three years for his misdemeanor trial, he said.

“He’s the last one,” Booker said.

In the 18th Judicial District, which covers Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, the trial backlog is becoming more manageable, said District Attorney John Kellner.

“Day-to-day operations have largely bounced back,” he said, noting that the district opened an extra courtroom in Douglas County and his office boosted staffing to help work through the amassed cases.

In a normal year, the office typically sees an excess of 100 to 200 felony cases when comparing newly-filed cases with resolved cases, he said. In 2020, that number jumped to more than 1,000, he said. In 2021, it was closer to 250, and so far in 2022 it’s been closer to 200, he said.

Some of the state’s less-busy courts already have cleared their COVID-19 backlogs.

“I would say we don’t have a backlog due to COVID in this district,” said Fifth Judicial District Attorney Heidi McCollum, the top prosecutor in Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties. “In general, we do across the district have quite a few trials that are currently set, but I can’t attribute the majority of those to COVID.”

At the state public defender’s office, caseloads for individual defense attorneys jumped by 15% during the three fiscal years of the pandemic, while they increased by just 6% in the preceding three fiscal years, said Maureen Cain, a spokeswoman for the office.

Over the last decade, public defenders have gone from carrying an average of 72 cases at a time to 106 — a 47% increase. But it’s difficult to tie the higher caseloads directly to COVID-related jury trial delays, Cain said, noting that the office also has seen a marked increase in serious felony charges in the cases it takes on.

“Anecdotally, we do know it has had some impact,” she said. “But there are other reasons as well — the more serious cases take longer.  Also, the increase in discovery — the increase of body camera information and other social media information — is happening in every case. This can create a need for more time to represent a client.”

In Boulder, District Attorney Michael Dougherty gave closing arguments in a jury trial Thursday in a vehicular homicide case. The death happened in 2020 and the trial was delayed by COVID-19. Dougherty said he was struck by how the delay impacted everyone involved in the case, from victims and witnesses to the defendant and the jury.

“We’re coming up on two years on a case that would usually take a year,” he said. “…These delays have a real impact.”

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