Judiciary officials have said the ongoing ban on the jury trial in Orleans County is because an engineer’s assessment found the court’s HVAC was insufficient to reopen amid the current state of the pandemic.
Now, a lawyer and the county’s top prosecutor are pointing to the same report as evidence that the jury trial should be resumed.
Their allegation marks the latest salvo from the unusual allies — attorney David Sleigh and state attorney Jennifer Barrett — against the justice system. In July, Sleigh filed motions to dismiss about 30 cases, arguing that the state had “deliberately been indifferent to my clients’ rights to a speedy trial.” With Barrett’s support, he unsuccessfully tried to impeach senior court officials to ask why they have still not resumed normal justice.
A senior court official said the duo’s interpretation of the engineer’s assessment ignores important logistical caveats.
Sleigh and Barrett received a copy of the engineering report on Thursday, which Sleigh shared with VTDigger.
The report, signed by Daniel Dupras of Vermont Engineering Services and presented to the court in August, says:[I]I believe that the HVAC system has proved adequate,” provided the court follows a list of other protocols, including masking and capacity limitations.
“I was totally baffled because the engineering studies are in direct conflict with what the judiciary has said about the buildings on their website and in their guidelines,” Sleigh said.
However, Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said it’s more complicated than that: One of the report’s requirements to reopen was that the courtroom on the third floor must be used for both the trial and jury deliberations.
This part, Grearson said, is what doesn’t work.
The court proceedings have been carefully choreographed so that jurors do not see detained suspects entering the courtroom, as watching a suspect enter under heavy security can influence the verdict. The Orleans courthouse has a special entrance for incarcerated defendants, and the jury usually enters the courtroom after the defendant has already sat down.
If there’s no other place for the jury to wait outside, Grearson said, the court in Orleans can’t hold a jury trial for incarcerated defendants.
Another complicating factor, according to Grearson: Courts must prioritize scheduling incarcerated suspect trials for suspects who are in their communities. He said these pilot requirements, along with the technical requirements, don’t work well in the physical space.
“The report is one piece of the puzzle to reopen the court,” Grearson said. “Obviously it’s a big piece — we couldn’t do anything until we got it — but it’s a matter of taking that report and seeing what can be done in an individual courthouse.”
Grearson said the court is considering ways to hold the Orleans jury trial in the Caledonia or Lamoille courthouses, but it will take time to implement. It is also in greater demand for public defenders and other attorneys to spread their files across multiple locations.
Sleigh, Barrett and Grearson discussed these complications at a meeting Thursday. Still, both Sleigh and Barrett wonder why the court can’t hold trials for non-detained suspects in the meantime.
“If we have the ability to do jury trials, there’s no reason we couldn’t do them,” Barrett said in an interview. “So it’s interesting, because we’re in a unique situation where the defense and the state are both advocating for the resumption of jury trials, and the court just hasn’t been transparent with their information, and they haven’t been transparent with their explanations of why.” we have not done that.”
Sleigh and Barrett both said lengthy delays in criminal trials are bad for their cases and the integrity of the judicial process.
Sleigh said the past year and a half has been “a disaster” for his clients awaiting trial. While they wait, the charges affect their ability to apply for jobs or travel, or generally live their lives.
“There’s some truth to the maxim that delayed justice equals justice denied,” Sleigh said. “I mean, at some point people just throw their hands in the air, give up, argue for the things they haven’t done, just to get rid of it.”
Barrett said long waits for lawyers to prosecute make it more difficult to track down witnesses and bring them to court.
“The integrity of state affairs are sometimes more challenging as time goes on,” Barrett said. “Not to mention a victim’s right to a speedy trial, which they all lack.”
Barrett said the order in which cases first come to court is ultimately up to the courts and can be rescheduled.
“I think the court has essentially lacked any transparency with us,” Barrett said. “So it’s hard for us to provide an intelligent explanation of when and how we’ll resume jury trials if we’re not brought in as part of the equation, or not explained why.”