COVID-19 in courtrooms prompts Duval County to halt trials this week

Three criminal trials in Jacksonville have been delayed after two defendants and a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office worker, who was set to testify, tested positive for the coronavirus.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Three criminal trials in Jacksonville have been delayed after two defendants and a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office worker, who was set to testify, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Attorney Regina Wright says almost immediately after jury selection Tuesday state prosecutors told her a fingerprint examiner with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office tested positive for COVID-19.

Wright said on Wednesday she was informed her client Channing Crowley also tested positive for the virus. Wright is now quarantined at home due to exposure to Crowley.

“I was concerned because, obviously, I’m going to be sitting in trial, had been sitting next to my client for at least two to three hours that morning,” said Wright.

A second criminal trial was delayed Tuesday after three jurors were seated next to another juror who believed he was exposed to COVID-19, records show. The defendant in the case, Trey Carter, was also “coughing continuously during jury selection” after being housed and transported with another inmate allegedly expressing symptoms of COVID-19.

A third and separate trial set to begin this week was delayed, also, after attorneys say their client, Anthony Graves, tested positive for COVID-19.

“It is our unfortunate understanding that both courtroom staff and our client have tested positive for COVID-19 while jury selection was in session,” Jan Abel, Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel.

The delays in the only three trials set to begin this week come as the courts are facing an overwhelming backlog of pending felony cases.

The Florida Supreme Court suspended jury trials in early March due to concerns over COVID-19 exposure. There were 2,986 filed felony cases at the beginning of that week in Duval County. By the week of Nov. 7, court records show there were 4,096 pending felony cases.

“Although my office has worked closely with the courts to run criminal calendar through the use of video conferencing, that process has not kept up with the influx of cases,” the Duval County Public Defender Charlie Cofer wrote to local legislators.

On top of a growing backlog and concerns, the return to jury trials could lead to increased exposure, the Public Defender’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office is facing potentially crippling budget cuts.

Although proposed cuts have not been enacted, Cofer said the potential cuts would reduce his office’s budget by more than $1 million, and he noted that the state has already withheld 3% of his office’s budget.

The State Attorney’s Office was asked to detail the impact of an 8.5% budget reduction for the next fiscal year. The agency estimated that would result in a loss of more than $2.8 million in funding, which would require the elimination of 18 assistant state attorney positions, 10 investigators and 3.5 clerks.

“We need the attorneys to handle the cases to resolve the cases and cuts would be devastating to us, if they occurred while we’re trying to address this backlog,” said Cofer.

Cofer wrote to local legislators this week to ask for support in their request to be exempted from any budget cuts.

“These cuts would come at the very time that we have a critical need to maintain staffing levels in order to address the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system,” wrote Cofer in the letter.

Wright said the delays this week illustrate an ongoing challenge to balance the pursuit of resolution in the cases with public safety.

Her client, Crowley, is facing charges for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. His bond was denied in October 2019. He’s been waiting 13 months for his case to go to trial.

“You know, obviously, we have clients who were sitting in jail languishing, and many of them want to go to trial and are expressing their needs to go to trial, but then you also have this public health concerns that kind of militates against that,” said Wright.

About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.