COVID and the Alaska Court System: Are speedy trial rights being violated?

Published: Oct. 5, 2020 at 4:19 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Since March, the Alaska Court System has put all jury trials on hold in their ongoing efforts to fight to the COVID-19 pandemic, and some defense attorneys are worried their clients rights are being violated.

COVID-19 upended life as many know it, with lockdowns, masks and social distancing -- but for the criminal justice system, the changes could be felt for years. Even when trials do resume, they will likely look much different than before. The months-long delay caused by the closures has also created a backlog that some attorneys fear could be last for years. In a three part series this week, we will explore some of the issues facing the court system and how they are being dealt with.

Joel Bolger is the Chief Justice of Alaska, and said they made the decision to suspend jury trials out of health concerns.

“When we first encountered the COVID crisis in March, we decided to stop doing jury trials because they were the one type of proceeding where we were requiring people to come to the courthouse and to stay in small rooms for long periods of time in large groups," Bolger said.

Earlier this summer they began allowing grand juries to meet again with social distancing guidelines in place and masks required. Moving forward with what they learned, they have decided to resume misdemeanor jury trials starting in November.

“We feel confident now that we’re ready to take the next step to provide misdemeanor trials, which is kind of a first step in the types of trials that can be done," Bolger said.

Some defense attorneys are expressing concerns, saying that their clients are already seeing their speedy trial rights violated. Bill Satterberg is a private defense attorney in Fairbanks and says one of his clients has been ready for trial for over a year. He said that the speedy trial rights aren’t only for a defendant.

“It affects both the accused and the accuser, the defendant and the alleged victim -- both sides. Alaska’s State Constitution says that victims have rights as well as defendants, and part of that right is right to a speedy resolution of a trial. And when you have somebody that has been languishing in jail now for well over a year, and has not has a chance to get their case in front of a jury, that causes tremendous problems,” Satterberg said.

Justice Bolger said that when they are making decisions regarding health measures, they always consider the state and federal constitution. “At every stage of the process we have to weigh those constitutional considerations that you have mentioned against the safety of everyone involved.” He went on to say that he would never make a health order if he felt it violated constitutional rights.

We also interviewed the Fairbanks District Attorney Joe Dallaire for the series but he declined to comment on speedy trial rights, citing potential future litigation surrounding the issue.

On Tuesday, we will explore the backlog that was caused by the suspension of trials, and how the court system will solve the problem.

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