As courts prepare to resume jury trials, legal experts say backlog presents problems

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Jury trials, put on hold due to the pandemic, are set to resume next month. Legal experts say the delays have caused problems for both victims and defendants. Experts say catching up with the backlog will be a challenge.

Jury trials were taking place earlier this year but not nearly as often because of physical distancing and other safety guidelines. It all came to a complete stop when the delta variant took off.

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And even when they were taking place, legal experts say they were mostly the less serious cases.

“That did not include sex assault in the first-degree, attempted murder, murder in the first-degree, murder in the second degree because those types of charges require a larger panel,” said defense attorney Megan Kau.

So many of those cases have been on hold for at least a couple of years, which adds to the pain for the victims, and more uncertainty.

“Evidence gets lost, witnesses’ memories fade, and as a result, a case that might be factually strong or evidentially strong may be weakened,” said Randal Lee, former Honolulu Circuit Court judge.

Adding to the list of challenges is the defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Lee says this opens the possibility of a judge dismissing the case even if it’s delayed due to the pandemic. So with a backlog of cases building, Lee says the clock is ticking for prosecutors.

“It may put pressure on the prosecutor to render a plea agreement rather than proceeding with trial. And the whole purpose is, sometimes the cases aren’t as strong as it used to be,” said Lee.

A spokesperson for the state judiciary says it has been able to hold jury trials on Oahu for murders and sex assault cases.

But the Honolulu prosecutor’s office says there is a backlog of 1,925 jury trial cases pending, which include felonies and misdemeanors.

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A spokesman adds that the prosecutor is “… happy to enter into plea agreements in many cases if they are fair and public safety is protected. In other cases, we will be advocating for prison time.”

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