Baltimore City Circuit Court Halts Jury Trials Amid COVID Surge

Former Baltimore prosecutor turned defense attorney Roya Hanna said she had three criminal jury trials set between the first of the year and early February. Little did she know that all scheduled jury trials would cease for the next month due to skyrocketing COVID-19 infections across Maryland.

Effective on Dec. 29, 2021, Chief Judge Joseph M. Getty issued an administrative order halting all jury trials through Feb. 8, sending all Maryland courts back to phase three of the Maryland Judiciary’s emergency pandemic operations amid the Omicron variant. Under phase three, remote proceedings—including bail reviews, reception court, and some in-person hearings—will move forward, and jury trials that were already underway will continue.

“I don’t know what else the courts could’ve done,” said Hanna, who announced her bid for Baltimore City State’s Attorney last September. “[Trials] may get pushed back again. I don’t know. All of this is very new.”

According to Baltimore Witness data, Baltimore City Circuit Court had nearly 40 criminal jury trials involving homicide or non-fatal shootings scheduled between Dec. 29, 2021, and Feb. 8. About 25 of the scheduled trials were for homicides, while about 10 involved attempted homicide.

An additional three trials were for non-fatal shooting defendants.

Hanna, who had criminal jury trials scheduled for Jan. 4, 18, and Feb. 2, said that the brunt of the impact from these trial postponements won’t necessarily be felt by attorneys but rather their clients who remain incarcerated.

“If they want a jury trial, they will have to wait a little bit longer,” Hanna said. “There were a lot of cases that were specially set over the next month that are now going to be postponed and it is unclear when they will be [held].”

Instead of proceeding to trial, Hanna said, defendants will have their cases moved to the reception court docket, where they will either be rescheduled for trial or resolved.

Defense attorney Andrea Jaskulsky said she had three back-to-back shooting trials postponed in the coming month. However, the courts are simply unable to just slide all scheduled jury trials to keep the postponed trials near their original date.

Jaskulsky said it is more likely that the postponed trials will be rescheduled after the trials that were already on the docket passed Feb. 8.

During a bail review hearing on Jan. 11, a defense attorney informed Judge Philip S. Jackson that he and several colleagues had trials scheduled through the summer.

“For purposes of a bail, it’s very different from the presumption of innocence,” she added. “When you’re looking at [a defendant being a] flight risk and danger to society, you take the facts that are in the statement of charges or statement of probable facts as true, so [the incarcerated are] still sitting there because usually the facts are really serious.”

Although defendants are entitled to the right to a speedy trial within 180 days of their or their attorney’s first court appearance, Jaskulsky said attorneys can’t effectively argue this rule because of the pandemic’s global impact.

“You can imagine that the longer somebody is incarcerated in a pre-trial facility and they’re waiting to go to trial, they’re anxious,” she said.

Despite the inability to meet with their clients in person, Hanna and Jaskulsky agreed that some of the jail operations have improved, specifically, allowing defense attorneys to schedule phone and/or video calls with their clients more frequently.

Hanna said this procedure saves time as attorneys no longer have to complete the initial screening process when they arrive or wait for guards to bring their clients to them.

“They are taking some precautions,” Hanna said regarding the city’s jails and the Maryland Judiciary’s latest administrative order. “I think they have tried to get people vaccinated, but they’re having some problems. They were much more cautious at the beginning [of the pandemic], but that kind of waned. People are coming up with the best solutions possible.”

In response to the Maryland Judiciary’s efforts to combat the pandemic and its impact on the court system, both defense attorneys commended Baltimore City Circuit Court, saying that judges have been more nimble than expected.

“The switch to Zoom court has been a really effective solution to a lot of the issues,” Hanna said. “We’ve discovered a lot of things can be handled over Zoom. That has worked quite well.”

Because of COVID, judges have also been more willing to release inmates on home detention, Jaskulsky said, which presents the court system with an opportunity to study release versus detainment.

As defendants are granted pretrial release, the defense attorney said she’s noticed “very, very low incidences” of the released defendants committing new crimes. Instead, they’re complying with the home monitoring court order.

Since April 2021, Baltimore Witness recorded approximately three home detention for defendants, none of whom were charged with another crime during their confinement.

“It’s like a study that happened accidentally as a result of [the pandemic],” she said. “We have all these people out on bail—people who we said before were a danger to society—and now, we’re taking that danger to society and moving that needle a little bit to balance safety issues with people’s health.”

Inside the courthouse, the number of in-person hearings are limited as much as possible, said Maryland Courts Government Relations and Public Affairs Office Public Information Officer Bradley Tanner, with very few in-person motions and court trials in the criminal division.

The court will maintain its mask requirement for all visitors and staff as well as continue routine temperature checks and screenings at the courthouse entrance.

Tanner said it is currently unknown how the postponed jury trials will impact the court system’s backlog of 1,464 felony backlog cases as of Jan. 3, but the court will continue to follow orders sent from Chief Judge Getty.

The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office could not be reached for comment.

Prisons Attempt to Combat the Spread

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) continues to face its own share of problems created by the pandemic as defendants are in close contact. DPSCS has since paused all in-person visits through Feb. 4, which could be extended if necessary.

In light of the closure, the DPSCS website states, video visitation has extended hours, and inmates are allotted three free 15-minute phone calls per week.

Work release, outside details, religious services, and other programming are ongoing for fully vaccinated inmates and educational programming will continue with the implementation of COVID protocols.

“Everything we’re doing is designed to protect our employees and those in our care,” DPSCS Secretary Robert Green said in a news release. “We are totally focused on working around the clock with our health partners to mitigate the spread of these variants and keep our staff and those we are responsible for safe.”

DPSCS Media Relations Coordinator Lt. Latoya Gray told Baltimore Witness that the department is constantly testing and vaccinating inmates in accordance with Maryland’s vaccination distribution plan.

According to the department’s COVID dashboard, there are 949 active COVID cases in the state’s 21 prison facilities, 450 of which are in the Baltimore region. Since March 2020, the Baltimore Central Booking & Intake Center alone has had the second-highest case count among inmates at nearly 460, with almost 420 cases reported among staff.

Approximately 365 inmates died from COVID since the onset of the pandemic in addition to 36 staff deaths, the dashboard states.

“The department continues to aggressively vaccinate the incarcerated population as quickly as possible, following all guidance and mandates from state health officials,” Gray said. “The department is monitoring conditions by facility, region, and statewide, every day.”

As of early January, approximately 39,715 tests have been administered to inmates and 42, 376 tests have been administered to staff.

More than 77 percent of Maryland’s prison population has received the first dose of the vaccination, with nearly 71 percent and 8 percent having received the second dose and booster, respectively.

Editor’s note: Effective as of January 14, the Maryland Judiciary extended Phase III of its re-opening plan, continuing the postponement on in-person jury trials until March 6.