The Justice Files: Justice on hold again

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) –  Justice continues to remain on hold with no end in sight with COVID-19 still causing delays in the court system.

The latest COVID-19 statistics in Utah showed more and more counties are in the High Transmission Area phase, meaning it will only get worse.

It’s something on the minds of the accused, attorneys and judges.

And some victims of crimes are feeling re-victimized.

As an example, Ruben Campuzano was arrested in April and eventually charged with felony aggravated assault of a woman in Duchesne County. He was released from jail with pre-trial conditions and his initial appearance was scheduled earlier this summer but due to COVID-19, it was been delayed over and over again, finally rescheduled to later this month.  

While there continue to be delays in the Campuzano case, the victim’s life also remains on hold.

In 2018, Ron Makin was charged with aggravated arson and now faces years in prison if convicted.  He called 911 after spotting smoke at his apartment that houses the elderly. At first, Makin was considered a hero but after a police investigation, he was labeled a suspect.

From the outset, he wanted to prove his innocence but the Covid-19 outbreak has put trials on hold and routine court hearings are being held remotely using video conference. The order was from the chief justice of the Utah supreme court citing concern for the public’s health.

Now, Makin must wait even longer for his day in court.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I would like to go to court and have everything presented so we can get everything dismissed and move forward and get on with my life.”

The attorney representing Stephanie Tuinman claimed she is innocent of charges in a Duchesne County murder case. Attorney Kent Morgan said she was not present when the beating which claimed the woman’s life occurred.

But for two years Tuinman has been jailed and a hearing to reduce bail has not been scheduled. A trial date is nowhere in sight.

“Instead of being out of jail and living free they are being held as if they are convicted,” said Morgan.

To date, there’s been only one trial occurring since the court order went into effect last Spring. The trial occurred in Duchesne County and it was allowed to do so because of the county’s covid-19 cases were in the yellow phase and representing a moderate risk.

But counties, like Salt Lake, Utah and Juab county are in the high risk category and court cases are becoming backlogged.

“Under our plan and our order jury trials aren’t allowed in the red phase,” said Judge Todd Shaughnessy who is a member of the judicial council. “Basically no in-person proceedings are allowed in the red phase.”

As a result, court officials estimate a backlog of 147 civil and criminal trials in the coming months.  That’s about 29-jury trials on hold each month.

“Once the order is lifted, we will find ways to get through the backlog,” said the judge.

But some trial lawyers are anxious to get back in the court immediately.

“We’re at least seven months behind in all of our jury trials,” said Danny Quintana, a trial lawyer.  “We’ve got to get our jury trials going so the public doesn’t lose confidence in our legal system.”

Quintana represents Tooele residents who in 2016 a fire destroyed many homes. He said time is not on the side of homeowners who are elderly.

“My clients are elderly and we’re scheduled to go to trial in January but it’s highly unlikely that’s going to happen,” Quintana said.

In a letter to the chief justice, Quintana said he’s asking trials resume in unused bigger arenas like a movie theatre. He said it would allow for social distancing.

“We haven’t ruled anything out,” said Judge Shaughnessy. “We’ve looked at that as an option. There’s logistical considerations involved. One of the things we have to do is to make sure we make a record of the proceedings. Our courtrooms are all set up to make a record of the proceedings.”  

Quintana also suggested civilian jurors be replaced by three-person professional jurors. He said former judges or attorneys could sit as jurors and view a case without bias.

But Judge Shaughnessy said that is not an option because it’s unconstitutional. Kent Morgan also agreed. But he said he is willing to wait out the pandemic and get the courts back in operation.

Morgan said his biggest concern is his age and health.

“I think the more you deal with people who are on the edges of society the more likely that you’re going to come in contact with the coronavirus,” he said.

Judge Shaughnessy said they are continuing to work on solutions. But he also added that prospective jurors who are summoned need to answer the request.

He said keeping a pool of jurors on the sidelines is important because when needed they need to be ready.

As for those waiting for their cases to be heard, the judge is asking for patience.

“We understand this is not an ideal situation,” said Judge Shaughnessy. “But we really have to take into consideration the health and safety of the public that’s going to enter a courtroom. We have the ability to compel people to come to court and we have to be mindful of their concerns of getting infected with COVID-19.”

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