FARGO — The coronavirus pandemic is once again forcing Minnesota and some judges in North Dakota to delay jury trials as positive case numbers climb.
In the latest announcement by court officials, Presiding Judge William Herauf of North Dakota’s Southwest Judicial District signed an order on Tuesday, Nov. 24, that suspends jury trials until further notice. Other hearings will continue in the district that includes Stark, Bowman and Dunn counties.
Herauf, who was unavailable for comment Wednesday, is not the first judicial official to postpone trials that require potential jurors to gather at courthouses. An order signed Nov. 20 by Northeast Presiding Judge Donovan Foughty said jury trials in his district would be put on hold until Jan. 10.
“I talked to each individual judge in the district, and we came to a consensus ... let’s just see what it looks like after the holidays,” Foughty told The Forum as he noted the rise in coronavirus cases.
On the same day, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea postponed all jury trials and grand jury proceedings between Nov. 30 and Jan. 1 in the state. Federal courts in Minnesota and North Dakota also have suspended jury trials.
The North Dakota Supreme Court has allowed districts and their judges to decide whether they should proceed with trials.
“We are concerned about public safety,” North Dakota Chief Justice Jon J. Jensen said. “If there is something that gives the judge concern that the trial can’t be conducted in a safe manner, they have discretion to continue those trials.”
Both states and federal courts postponed jury trials early in the pandemic before restarting those proceedings. It was an effort to implement strategies that would keep the judicial system going while keeping people safe.
Many judges have integrated video conferencing into their schedules. For those who go into courtrooms, masks are required and social distancing guidelines are followed.
Still, delays happen on a case-by-case basis. Defendants, attorneys and witnesses have tested positive or had close contact with someone who has the virus.
That sometimes forces judges to postpone hearings.
Many trials in North Dakota are being delayed, Jensen said.
In Mandan, the trial of Chad Isaak, who is accused of killing four people in April 2019 at a business that manages the mobile home park where he lived, was pushed from Nov. 30 to early June. Court officials cited concern for jurors and others amid the pandemic.
It’s not an ideal situation, but courts are trying cases when appropriate, Jensen added.
In Cass County, hearings have been going relatively well, considering the situation, East Central Presiding Judge Frank Racek said. Jury trials will continue, but he and his staff are frequently reviewing the situation.
Federal jury trials and grand jury proceedings have been on hold since Oct. 27 in North Dakota. An order issued Nov. 16 by Chief Judge Peter Welte extended the Nov. 30 end date to Dec. 31.
On the Minnesota side, federal jury trials will cease until Feb. 1, unless they were already underway as of Tuesday, according to an order signed by Chief Judge John Tunheim. Hearings that cannot be conducted by video or teleconference also will be put on hold between Nov. 30 and Jan. 31, unless otherwise specified, the order said.
The virus has presented challenges and delays, said Drew Wrigley, U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota. Three staff members tested positive, and other presumptive positive cases have forced his offices to shut down for thorough cleanings, he said.
Some staff members have been quarantined due to close contacts.
Wrigley cited the pandemic when he asked for a two-week extension last month to file a response in the Alfonso Rodriguez case. The 67-year-old was given a death sentence in 2006 after being convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing Dru Sjodin, a 22-year-old University of North Dakota student.
The defense has appealed his sentence, claiming he has an intellectual disability that dates back to his childhood. That would disqualify Rodriguez from being executed if a judge agrees, according to a 109-page brief filed in September.
The case has been delayed multiple times, but this recent extension likely won’t impact the overall timeline of its conclusion, Wrigley said.
He commended the court and his staff for handling those challenges. Grand jury hearings may be delayed, but defendants still can be arrested if complaints are filed, Wrigley said. Federal courts in North Dakota are on pace to handle the same amount of defendants this year as it did in 2019, despite the backlog caused by the pandemic, he said.
“I think we’ve been very aggressive about doing everything possible to ensure that we don’t have any spread of any kind in our office,” Wrigley said.
Staff have been flexible and adaptive when it comes to processing cases and moving forward, he said. He noted the quick and efficient transition to telecommunications.
“If we’re going to do our work productively, if people are going to continue to be able to make progress on the mission of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, we’re going to need to be as flexible as possible,” Wrigley said.
'Justice delayed is justice denied'
North Dakota's Northeast Judicial District stretches from Pembina and Walsh counties along the east border to McHenry and Renville counties, making it one of the largest districts in North Dakota.
The courts have to conduct their business while keeping people safe, but holding hearings over video isn’t always easy, Foughty said.
“It can be aggravating at times because sometimes the system doesn’t work like it should,” he said.
The courts have received positive feedback during these challenging times, Foughty said. In some districts, attendance at hearings has improved because of the ability to appear by video, he added.
Judges are doing an excellent job evaluating their local conditions, which is why the Supreme Court chose not to suspend trials across the state, Jensen said. Delaying trials can affect outside entities connected to the criminal justice system.
He noted jails may have to hold defendants who may be a danger to the public, and those facilities can fill up if trials are not held.
“People still commit crimes, unfortunately,” he said.
Attorneys have voiced concerns about delaying trials, Foughty said. Those concerns are legitimate, he acknowledged. Defendants and victims have a right to have their days in court, Jensen said.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Foughty said.
Still, courts want to keep people safe, Foughty said. The length of the Northeast District order may be extended, he added.
“I don’t know if our situation is going to improve much in January,” he said. “It might be worse if people are congregating during the holidays. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of caution in the state of North Dakota — at least I haven’t seen it.”