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Spokane County Superior Court again suspends jury trials

Judge Michael Price and courtroom personnel wear masks Thursday, July 23, 2020 in the courtroom at the Spokane County Courthouse as the court considers extending the trial date for Freeman High School shooter Caleb Sharpe to 2021.

Spokane County Superior Court is again postponing all jury trials due to concerns about COVID-19, though it’s unclear how long the pause will last.

Judge Michael Price made the announcement Wednesday afternoon in an email to court staff, a copy of which was obtained by The Spokesman-Review. He cited statistics from the Spokane Regional Health District that illustrate “the continued escalation of COVID-19 in Spokane County.”

“While the ultimate decision on this issue is not mine to decide, as acting presiding judge, I am acting within the scope of my authority in suspending all jury trials immediately,” Price wrote. “I anticipate that we will revisit this issue when Presiding Judge Harold Clarke returns from vacation next week.”

Price wrote that a number of court employees had contacted him with concerns about people gathering to conduct jury trials and spreading the novel coronavirus.

“These concerns have been exacerbated by the news that some of our own staff members, as well as attorneys who are often in our courtrooms, may have been directly exposed to the virus by family members, friends or their own staff members,” he wrote.

The court had not issued a public announcement about the pause on jury trials as of Thursday afternoon.

The court previously suspended jury and bench trials in mid-March, as did Spokane County District Court and Spokane Municipal Court, which primarily handle civil citations, misdemeanors and lower-level felony cases.

The three local courts announced they would resume jury trials on July 6, when a statewide suspension order from the Washington Supreme Court expired. But few, if any, jury trials have taken place in those courts this month.

District Court judges plan to meet and decide whether to pause jury trials a second time on Wednesday, said John Witter, the court administrator.

Tom Krzyminski, who leads the county public defender’s office, said he has encouraged his attorneys and support staff to work from home as often as possible, and masks and social distancing are required in the office. He said his attorneys have “varying degrees of discomfort” with the prospect of arguing before jurors and spectators in closed courtrooms.

“Everyone is struggling with this,” Krzyminski said. “I think for the most part, it is very difficult to conduct a trial with people in masks and people being distant. It’s just not how we are able to represent our clients to the best of our ability in that type of setting. And that’s a detriment to the client.”

Though local courts have taken steps to release hundreds of people awaiting trial from the Spokane County Jail and the Geiger Corrections Center, postponing trials could force some defendants to remain incarcerated longer than they would under normal circumstances.

“To the credit of the courts, they have been pretty good about letting out people who need to be let out – at least given the chance to go out and not mess up,” said Steve Graham, a private defense attorney who practices in Spokane and neighboring counties.

Graham said he argued before a jury in Lincoln County last week, and although the experience made him “a little nervous,” it’s imperative that defendants have access to speedy trials.

“The show must go on,” Graham said. “We can’t do without jury trials for very long and still have our constitutional traditions. So I don’t think we have much of a choice.”