YORK – York County Attorney John Lyons gave a report this week, to the York County Commissioners, regarding the status of criminal cases in the county and there was a conversation about how jury trials might be conducted in the future, in response to the COVID-19 situation.
Lyons said there are currently 202 open felony cases in the county, “with the most serious being sexual assault of a child and the most benign being possession of controlled substances. The nature of the cases really run the gamut, the majority are mostly drug-related crimes. We are also seeing a slight uptick in violent crimes which may be due to the quarantine situation as we are also seeing an increase in drug use.”
He said there are also 350 open misdemeanor cases and 33 open juvenile cases.
“Are there any previous numbers available, of cases, from this quarter of the year, in the past?” asked Commissioner Jack Sikes.
Lyons said no, those hadn’t been tracked in the past or recorded.
“So you don’t know if this is an increase or a decrease?” asked Sikes. “I am just kind of interested in why there are so many open cases, is it because the court is dragging their feet or what?”
The courts have been open since the pandemic began, sentencings and arraignments and hearings have taken place. However, the case continuances have noticeably risen since the COVID-19 situation began.
“There were about 160-170 open cases when I took office,” Lyons said. He became the county attorney prior to the pandemic situation. “I’m not sure if the number now is larger than in previous years.”
But he also noted that “every defendant is guaranteed a trial,” and jury trials are not taking place right now as a precautionary measure due to the pandemic.
“We aren’t the only people having this problem,” Sikes said. “Everyone is entitled to a speedy trial. How many cases are going to get dismissed because of this?”
Lyons said none, as the Nebraska Supreme Court has already created protections regarding the speedy trial requirements.
He also noted he had spoken with other county attorney’s offices that are also backed up on cases – “most across the country are.”
It was noted that last week, an informal meeting was held between York County Commissioner Chairman Randy Obermier and court officials, during which they talked about social distancing for trials and other practices that will have to take place in the future in order to have a jury trial.
Considerations are currently being given to possibly utilizing a larger venue (such as the Cornerstone Event Center at the fairgrounds, as an example) for the jury selection process as that is the point of a trial when dozens of people congregate for a number of hours to a full day. Using social distancing for this process would be required, so a larger location would be needed.
“We have also discussed whether the jury would be able to actually sit in the gallery and how we would re-position everyone in the courtroom,” Lyons said.
There were also considerations given to using the courthouse basement as the location for jury deliberations – because the space is bigger than the jury room and would allow for six-foot social distancing.
“All of this is still being looked at,” Lyons said. “It just depends on the court being comfortable with it.”