COVID-19 slows the wheels of justice

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By Jessie Wagoner

Pull quote: “We want to make sure the criminal justice system doesn’t grind to a complete halt.” McPherson County Attorney Greg Benefiel

The wheels of justice continue to move in McPherson County, but jury trials have ground to a halt, due to COVID-19.

McPherson County Attorney Greg Benefiel says he and the other two prosecutors are handling the majority of court proceedings via Zoom rather than in-person hearings, due to COVID-19. While jury trials are on hold, many other hearings are still occurring, thanks to technology.

“We have done some preliminary hearings in person and some by Zoom,” Benefiel said. “We did more in person in August, September and October. Now, with the positivity rate being so high, I have instructed everyone in our office to ask for a continuance if it isn’t going to be a Zoom hearing.”

Benefiel says the decision to move to only Zoom hearings for the time being is based on safety.

“There are only three of us in the office,” Benefiel said. “If we get quarantined, that closes the whole office.”

To ensure the county attorney’s office always has at least one healthy attorney to handle emergencies, the office has implemented a number of safety measures. Social distancing and mask wearing are common practices. Benefiel also jokingly says one attorney is kept at an “undisclosed safe location.” In reality, the attorneys are able to stagger their time to ensure someone works from home away from the other two for a portion of time to ensure they aren’t all exposed to COVID-19 at the same time.

“We take it seriously that we have an obligation to make sure that our office is available to the community, especially if there is a situation that needs to be addressed immediately,” Benefiel said. “We have planned so at least one of us can stay healthy enough to limp the office along if the other two need to recover.”

Benefiel says that because of the availability of Zoom hearings, the majority of cases have been able to proceed as necessary. However, when jury trials are able to be held again, the office may have quite a struggle because they will be facing weeks of back-to-back jury trials, which are quite time consuming. It is unclear when jury trials will be allowed to resume.

“We don’t know when they will begin,” Benefiel said. “Each courthouse had to submit a plan to the Kansas Supreme Court on how they would conduct a jury trial. Ours was just approved this week, so I’m not sure yet when trials will begin and what it will look like.”

There are many different issues to consider when trying to conduct a jury trial. The possibility of someone or multiple people on a jury being exposed to COVID-19 and becoming ill or having to quarantine is very high. One consideration will be how many alternate jurors will need to be selected to ensure the trial can conclude with 12 healthy jurors able to deliberate. Additionally, every witness, attorney, defendant and court employee would need to stay well. With some jury trials lasting a week or longer, it could be quite difficult to ensure a trial would be able to be held anytime soon.

In the meantime, the system will continue to operate with Zoom hearings, which Benefiel says have proven to be a time efficient and safe way to handle cases. Now that Zoom has become an accepted way to conduct hearings, he anticipates the trend will continue even when COVID-19 subsides.

“There are some Zoom hearings that will be here for the long haul that will be done by Zoom,” Benefiel said. “There is a time saving element to it and it does not hurt the system.”

He says Zoom hearings have proved especially helpful in Child in Need of Care (CINC) cases. It has proven easier to schedule the large number of involved parties for CINC cases via Zoom, rather than gathering everyone in person. CINC cases typically have at least four attorneys involved, parents, foster parents, grandparents, St. Francis staff, DCF staff, CASA and mental health therapists.

“CINC cases have set the example of how a case can really be done by Zoom,” Benefiel said. “Because there are so many different attorneys and moving parts and everyone can come together on a video conference. Sometimes, you have people that are out of state and they can still participate and not have to travel.”

Benefiel says his staff is doing their best to navigate a challenging situation and he is proud of their efforts. While in March, April and May crime rates were lower, he says crime rebounded and was much heavier in the second half of 2020, meaning his staff still has the same amount of cases to prosecute, if not more. They will continue to take safety precautions to make sure they are able to keep cases moving through the system.

“We have had COVID outbreaks in the office and we have done a good job of making certain that we have people available at all times,” Benefiel said. “We want to make sure the criminal justice system doesn’t grind to a complete halt.”