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The challenges of justice served during a pandemic

Delays and adjustments for Indiana's courts
Posted at 4:00 AM, Jan 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 04:15:20-05

INDIANAPOLIS — The last 10 months have shown us how things we once took for granted are difficult, if not impossible, during a pandemic.

Going to the office, going to school, eating out, attending a concert, visiting a loved one in the hospital are just a few examples. COVID-19 has also forced changes in the way Indiana's courts do their work.

While much of the business of the courts goes on, COVID-19 has put a halt to jury trials. Some were held last year, with mixed success. In December, the Indiana Supreme Court ordered no jury trials in county courts until at least March 1.

PREVIOUS: Indiana Supreme Court suspends jury trials in Indiana because of COVID-19

In Marion County, Indiana's busiest county court system turned to hearings held remotely. "In the fall of 2020, a limited number of trials were conducted, but those were paused after a short period of time," according to Prosecutor Ryan Mears. "Victim advocates have played an important role in helping victims of crime navigate these changing schedules and the additional challenges they faced under pandemic conditions."

In Grant County, a COVID outbreak was behind the November decision to declare a mistrial in the trial of Amanda Carmack, who faces murder charges in the death of her stepdaughter. A retrial has been scheduled for April.

PREVIOUS: COVID cases behind Carmack mistrial decision

Whether trials took place during the months of 2020 when they were allowed was decided on a county-by-county basis. Boone County Prosecutor Kent Eastwood said no jury trials have taken place there since the pandemic's outbreak.

Johnson County Prosecutor Joe Villanueva said two jury trials were scheduled in September and October. For the first one, Villanueva said the biggest problem was getting people who were called for jury duty to show up.

"This was a six person trial on a theft case and had straightforward facts, so we were able to ultimately get the trial done. However, only about half of the people who were called actually showed up, making the selection process much more difficult," said Villanueva.

In October, a case which had been pending for two years and involved a child victim went to trial. Villanueva said enough jurors were found but there were logistical challenges. "Instead of having a courtroom full of potential jurors, we had to bring them in three sets of 20 and spread them around the whole courtroom," said the prosecutor.

Having the potential jurors wear masks also proved problematic. "A crucial part of jury selection is not only the responses, but also the non-verbal cues given by the person answering as well as other jurors," said Villaneuva. "Masks did not allow us to see, for example, whether someone is smiling or frowning, which could indicate whether they were in agreement with whatever point was being made."

Hendricks County Prosecutor Loren Delp said the pandemic has posed "considerable" challenges to bringing a case to trial. "On a major felony trial we typically have 65-80 people called in for jury selection," said Delp. "Our courthouse and courtrooms are not big enough to safely accommodate that many people. So we developed a system where we would conduct jury selection at our fairground that has a large exhibition hall where we could space out the potential jurors."

In Tippecanoe County, creative solutions were also used. "Our courts implemented a jury selection where we used a local civic theatre, which has a 400 person capacity, to safely select the jury," said Prosecutor Patrick Harrington. With this system in place, Harrington said 24 jury trials were possible before the Supreme Court put a stop to trials.

Harrington has firsthand knowledge of COVID. "I had COVID-19 and was out of the office for approximately 18 days. My prayers and thoughts are with those who have or are fighting this," he said.

There were changes at the Shelby County Courthouse, according to Prosecutor Brad Landwerlen. Rather than meeting in a cramped jury room, jurors held their deliberations in the courtroom itself. And there were extra precautions during trial testimony. "Of course we did our best to avoid passing items of evidence between jurors, by making multiple copies of photographs and documents (so that each juror had his/her own), and by setting other exhibits of evidence out for the jury to file by and review," said Landwerlen.

With no trials to be held statewide until at least March, county courts must contend with a backlog of cases. While some cases have to be tried before a jury, others can be resolved through plea deals. "The challenge is how do we make deals without sacrificing our pursuit of justice," said Hendricks County Prosecutor Delph.

Bench trials, where a judge and not a jury, issues a verdict are also common. "We have not had success in bringing cases to jury trial but have had success in bringing cases to bench trial," said Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton. "The last time I checked, this office had more than 30 bench trials for various offenses that have gotten to a verdict this year (2020)."

"We are attempting to work towards negotiating reasonable plea agreements to resolve cases as much as possible, but suspension of jury trials removes the normal impetus for pleas to occur when defendants have their metaphorical feet to the fire created by a looming jury trial," said Hamilton County Prosecutor D. Lee Buckingham.

Shelby County Prosecutor Landwerlen made a similar point. "Criminal defendants notoriously put off concluding their case, even by a plea they are willing to accept, until the last minute. When they knew that their case would not go to trial for a while, there was no 'last minute'".

"Obviously the backlog will continue to increase, but maybe the greater issue is the passage of time," said Johnson County Prosecutor Villanueva. "The longer a case stays open, there is an increased risk for things to go south when trying to prosecute it. Witnesses memories can fade, or their whereabouts can become unknown. Victims, especially domestic violence victims, may lose their will to hold their abusers accountable because of continued outside pressure by individuals sympathetic to the defense."

Villanueva's concerns are echoed by Hancock County Prosecutor Eaton. "Delay is typically not great for the prosecution of cases because witnesses may forget things. They may move, they may die. This delay may allow more time for any of those things to happen and thus make it more difficult, ultimately, to bring accountability to some defendants," said Eaton. "Sophisticated defendants may realize this and therefore attempt to push harder on certain cases, knowing that our ability, ultimately, to bring the case in front of a jury is compromised presently."

Pending high-profile cases. Here are some cases that could come to trial later in the year.

Larry Taylor: The primary suspect in the 2015 murder of Amanda Blackburn. The wife of a minister, Blackburn, who was pregnant, was shot at her Indianapolis home.

Brandon Kaiser: Suspect in the shooting of two Southern Indiana judges outside a downtown Indianapolis White Castle in 2019.

Rodreice Anderson, Cameron Banks, Lasean Watkins, Desmond Banks. All are charged in four murders that took place one year ago on the Indianapolis east side.

Nicholas Dunn: Allegedly shot to death four people in 2015 at a house on North Harding Street in Indianapolis. Dunn was arrested in 2019.

Marcus Anderson: For the murder of Chris Beaty during the 2020 Indianapolis downtown riots.

Tyler Newby: Charged in the murder of Dorian Murrell during the riots.

Danny Williams. Faces reckless homicide charges. Dump truck driver involved in 2019 Hendricks County crash that killed an elderly Danville couple.

Jasean Dale and Jason Epeards: Charged in the 2018 murder of Indianapolis pizza delivery man LaVon Drake.

Tyler Bruce: Former Tri-West High School teacher accused of sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old student.

Terrance Warren: Allegedly murdered two men at the Club Venus in Indianapolis in May of 2019.

Corey Withrow: His truck, at highway speed, slammed into the back of a passenger car in an Interstate 70 construction zone last summer. Four children died. Withrow faces charges of reckless homicide and causing death while operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

Okadema Link and Shantiana Willis. The father and daughter each face a number of charges, including reckless homicide, for causing a crash on Kessler Boulevard North Drive in which three teenagers, walking along the road, were killed.