AUGUSTA — Jury trials, largely paused for most of the coronavirus pandemic, are set to resume Monday at the Capital Judicial Center.
But despite a long stretch of not being able to have jury trials, a foundational piece of the country’s justice system, only one defendant out of many on a list of potential May trials opted to have a jury trial this month.
A jury was selected earlier this month, with dozens of potential jurors socially distanced in a line that snaked out of the courthouse and around part of its parking lot as they waited to report for jury duty.
Courtrooms are setup with plexiglass partitions and additional space for jurors to spread out for social distancing, and everyone in courtrooms, at least initially, will be required to wear masks.
But, in Augusta this month anyway, there will be only one jury trial, that of Timothy Barclift, 46, of the Bronx borough of New York City. He faces two counts of aggravated trafficking in scheduled drugs (cocaine), dating to Jan. 22, 2020, in Augusta.
Out of a list of more than 30 defendants who could have had trials this month, Barclift was the only one to opt for a May jury trial. Many others opted instead to plead guilty, many in plea agreements reached with prosecutors, rather than go to trial. Others had their lawyers file paperwork to continue their cases, and some had their charges dismissed.
Defense attorneys and Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said it’s common for more defendants to plead guilty as trial approaches, reaching deals with prosecutors that, in some cases, dismiss some charges or set caps on sentences in exchange for guilty pleas instead of going to trial.
“We had a lot of cases set for jury trial this month, and well over 20 decided to plead guilty,” instead of going to trial, Maloney said. “Only one ended up wanting a trial this month. But everyone that was on that list who wanted a trial, got a trial. That’s how we want it to be. If you want a trial, you should be able to have a trial.”
Waterville defense attorney David Geller had three defendants with cases on the May trial list, none of whom are going to trial. One took a plea deal, one didn’t show up in court, and one had the charges against him dismissed.
Geller said going to trial now, with requirements that everyone, even defendants, wear masks, is not ideal but he understands the need to resume them. He said he was prepared to go to trial for one defendant, but now that won’t be necessary because state prosecutors dismissed the charges.
“There are definitely a lot of different rules and procedures (in courts due to the pandemic), but I understand why, everybody wants to be safe,” Geller said. “A trial now, with masks and distancing, is not ideal. But we also can’t keep waiting and the backlog is getting bigger and bigger.”
Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy said during a court hearing earlier this month that the judicial center had nearly 600 cases pending and awaiting trial, “and we’ve really got to start resolving cases without pushing them down the road.”
The scene at the Capital Judicial Center on May 10, the first day more than 100 prospective jurors reported for jury duty, was hectic as they had to be checked in through security. Once inside, the potential jurors filled much of the courthouse lobby and stairs, waiting to get into a room where they would be screened.
Geller said the selection process appeared “chaotic.”
And Maloney acknowledged she had never seen anything like it at jury selection before, though she noted the backup at the entrance was likely due to the need for additional pandemic-protocol screening by judicial marshals at the security checkpoint.
Multiple defense attorneys have expressed concerns about jurors not being able to see defendants’ faces because they’ll be wearing masks. They said it could make it harder for jurors to hear testimony, connect with defendants and determine the truthfulness of their words.
Augusta defense attorney Walter McKee had only one client he’s representing on the May trial list, and that defendant took a plea deal. He said he’d prefer to wait, for any of his cases to go to a jury trial, until mask and other pandemic procedures are no longer required in court.
“I appreciate that there is a hue and cry to have jury trials start again,” McKee said. “But those cases that I want to see tried are cases where I am willing to wait until there is a return to trial normalcy without plexiglass and masks. I get it — it is the best that can be done. But it is far from optimal and frankly I am just too steeped in my trial ways over the past 28 years to really want to change everything just to get a few trials in now.”
Maloney is confident jury trials can be held safely, noting some trials were held in September, during the pandemic, and no outbreaks of COVID-19 arose from those trials.
She said currently the number of criminal cases pending in Kennebec County for longer than six months is about 37% higher than the normal number of pending cases, pre-pandemic.
But she said the courts here, unlike some others elsewhere in the state, have already caught up on arraignments and she is hopeful “that by the end of the year we’ll be back to pre-pandemic levels” in the numbers of pending cases.
Delays related to the pandemic are also having other impacts on the justice system.
Vassalboro man Dylan J. Wood, 25, arrested in March 2019 on two felony counts of aggravated assault for allegedly assaulting his then 8-month-old son, Blaze Wood, pleaded guilty to one class B count of aggravated assault in November of last year.
He was to be sentenced last week, and prosecutor Frayla Tarpinian, deputy district attorney, said an agreement had been reached which included Wood pleading guilty to one count of aggravated assault and being sentenced to 10 years in prison. All but three years of that were to be suspended, meaning he’d serve three years in prison if he complied with the terms of his probation.
However, in court on May 12, Wood told Murphy, the sentencing judge, that he didn’t feel he had received a speedy trial, which he has a right to, and asked her to give him “a little leeway on time” and reduce that sentence.
“I know this case has been long and dragged out and I know I have a right to a fair and speedy trial,” Wood said in court. “No offense to any of you but this case has not been (speedy), because of COVID and other things going on.”
Murphy responded that she could not throw out the plea deal he had agreed to previously that had been negotiated between Tarpinian and Wood’s attorney, John O’Donnell, or reduce that sentence. She added that, considering there is a pandemic and that Wood, unlike some defendants, was free on bail while awaiting his day in court, the time it took for his case to move forward was not inappropriate nor was it a violation of his right to a fair and speedy trial.
She noted part of the reason Wood’s more than two-year-old case was delayed was that his attorney was looking into the medical issues of his infant son.
“Any delay here I don’t think was inappropriate at all, given the gravity of the event,” Murphy said.
She said Wood’s only options at this point were to take the sentence agreed to in the deal, or withdraw his guilty plea, which she said would restart the process. She gave him until May 19 to decide.
Maine Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Mullen told the Sun Journal that state courts have roughly 10,000 more criminal cases pending than in March 2020, when the pandemic hit Maine.
Since that time, when the first state Judicial Branch pandemic management order was issued, all state courts have suspended civil jury trials.
And most Maine courts suspended criminal jury trials, according to Mullen. Only a handful of jury trials have been held in state courts since this time last year, in part to comply with guidelines of Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency executive orders meant to help limit the spread of the pandemic.
It remains to be seen how court rules will change now that Mills has eased many pandemic requirements, including wearing masks in some instances, as the number of people getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in Maine has increased.