Prosecutors and defense lawyers said Tuesday they cannot fault the Louisiana Supreme Court for halting all jury trials in the state until March 1 due to the ongoing coronavirus spread, but they acknowledged the seven-week moratorium will further tax an already backlogged criminal justice system.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, the chief public defender, Mike Mitchell, said he intends to meet with District Attorney Hillar Moore III to make sure defendants don't linger unnecessarily in jail during the delay.
And Baton Rouge attorney Tommy Damico said his 2021 trial docket was already booked up into August, with two major trials a month, but he didn't see any reason to disagree with the Supreme Court's order, which came down Monday.
"It's significantly affected my trial schedule," he said. "It's just going to push things back further and further."
Last year, the high court imposed a monthslong trial moratorium after Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 22 in an effort to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Lower courts statewide did not hold in-person trials until the summer. The 19th Judicial District Court has had only seven criminal trials since, and 11 were set between now and March.
The first jury trial in 19th Judicial District Court since the coronavirus outbreak hit in March drew vastly different reviews from East Baton…
"It will set us back a little bit," Moore said.
Moore said the 19th JDC has demonstrated that trials can be conducted safely during the coronavirus pandemic, and he had hoped trials could continue without further disruptions.
"It's hard to fault the Supreme Court for their decision," he added. "I respect the decision."
Moore said the August 2016 floods caused an incredible backlog in the 19th JDC, as has the coronavirus pandemic and an uptick in homicides and other violent crime in East Baton Rouge.
"All of that stuff piles up," he said.
While concerned that the latest trial moratorium could impact those currently in jail awaiting trial, Mitchell said he fully supports the decision made by the Supreme Court.
"I'm pleased they did it because of the (coronavirus) surge in the state," he said. "It should perhaps be longer."
The Supreme Court stated in its order that speedy trial requirements are temporarily suspended.
"Given the public health concerns and the necessity of taking action to slow the spread of the disease, the continuances occasioned by ... this Order serve the ends of justice and outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial," the order reads.
"Therefore, time periods of such continuance shall be excluded from speedy trial computations pursuant to law ... and presumptively constitute just cause."
Robert Tucker Sr., another defense attorney, called the high court's decision a "proper judgment."
"I think it's a good thing considering all that's going on with the pandemic," he said.
Civil and criminal jury trials currently in progress will be allowed to conclude under the Supreme Court order, if approved by their local courts.
Courts can continue in-person proceedings that don't involve juries but must practice social distancing and limit the capacity of their courtrooms, in accordance with federal guidance, the state Supreme Court said.
It also is encouraged for courts to conduct remote proceedings.
The high court said grand jury proceedings won't be impacted by the order.