With some court cases high-centered on the suspension of jury trials and in-person hearings, concerns have emerged regarding the rights of defendants and victims, as well as how to manage court proceedings.
“There’s a lot of debate out there right now,” said defense attorney Wayne Caldwell.
Raymond Andrew Castaneda, a client of Caldwell’s, was slated to appear for an in-person evidentiary hearing in August regarding a doctrine-of-chances motion for two felony sexual assault cases in the 1st District Court. The cases involve separate alleged victims, and Cache County prosecutors filed the aforementioned motion to allow evidence from either case to be used in both cases.
On Tuesday, during a scheduling conference, the evidentiary hearing was rescheduled for a second time. Caldwell has requested the hearing take place in-person, stating it’s crucial for the effective cross-examination of witnesses and for the judge to assess the credibility of witnesses in real time. However, all jury trials and in-person hearings without “exigent circumstances” have been indefinitely suspended by an administrative order from Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B Durrant.
Hearings as of late have been conducted largely via video conference calls, something Caldwell believes isn’t effective for more serious court proceedings where “life and liberty” are at stake.
“They won’t give him bail, but they won’t give him a jury trial. And I can’t have an in-person hearing,” Caldwell said, stating what’s happened is “completely unconstitutional” in his view. “You can’t have a jury trial in the State of Utah — you can’t do it. It’s just a fundamental constitutional right and it’s gone. It’s been suspended.”
Caldwell said some judges have since allowed in-person, socially distanced court proceedings when they meet the requirement of exigent circumstances. According to Caldwell, however, the definition of exigent circumstances seems to vary by judge. With no concrete plan for the resumption of jury trials or in-person hearings, Caldwell said in-custody defendants, including Castaneda, could sit in Cache County Jail indefinitely.
“You’re presumed innocent until proven guilty, but you can’t have bail, you can’t have an in-person prelim, you can’t have a hearing on your motion,” Caldwell said. “You can’t have a jury trial, we won’t even set a jury trial — they’re saying it won’t happen until after the new year.”
But defendants and defense attorneys aren’t the only ones being affected. The suspension of hearings and trials seem to gum-up the works for everyone involved in the justice system.
Cache County prosecutor Griffin Hazard said the situation has been difficult for judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, defendants and the courts.
“All of us want to resolve cases,” Hazard said. “All of us have an interest in doing that as quickly and as fairly and thoroughly as possible. And this has certainly made it a lot more difficult to do that, particularly for individuals charged with more serious crimes who typically do want to have jury trials and who are sitting in custody.”
Hazard said the victims of crimes are sometimes overlooked — they too have an interest in the swift, thorough resolution of cases.
“We do get hung up on defendants all the time, and people forget about the victims,” Hazard said. “It can be just as frustrating for them.”
At the time of publishing this article, representatives for the Cache County Victim Services Division had not responded to requests for comment.
Hazard said he hoped for a return to normal in the future, and said the state is also eager for in-person hearings and jury trials if so desired by defendants.
“I think everybody has an interest in getting back to in-person hearings as soon as possible,” Hazard said. “I think everybody involved in this process is eager to get back to the way that things should be operating — unfortunately, it’s just a waiting game.”