State suspends jury trials until after March

Due to the rise in the number of positive COVID-19 cases, the Indiana Supreme Court recently suspended all jury trials across the state until March 1, 2021.

The decision shouldn’t be a major issue in Jackson County.

“About 98% of all criminal cases are resolved via a plea agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant,” Jackson Circuit Judge Richard W. Poyner said. “Many cases are set on the jury trial docket but do not actually go to a jury trial.”

Poynter said in Indiana, a defendant has the right to a jury trial within a year of being formally charged with a crime.

“Therefore, we have to place many cases on the jury docket in order to protect a defendant’s right to a speedy trial,” he said.

Poynter said his main concern has to do with jury trials for defendants still in custody.

“County jails are not designed for long-term incarceration,” Poynter said. “We try to keep people in the county jail less than one year if at all possible. We currently have two inmates in the county jail awaiting jury trial who have been in there over one year.”

Because of the suspension, Poynter said those two inmates will be held longer in the jail than he would prefer.

He said the delays should be OK as long as the prosecutor’s office and the public defender’s offices continue to resolve most cases by plea agreement.

On how unorthodox it is for jury trials to be suspended in Indiana, Poynter said he has been an attorney for more than 21 years in two separate states (Florida and Indiana) and this year has been the first time in his career where jury trials could not be conducted.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jeff Chalfant said the suspension of jury trials is “necessary for everyone’s safety and health” and it shouldn’t be much of an inconvenience for the prosecutor’s office.

“When March rolls around hopefully people can come in and have a trial if they want to,” he said.

Chalfant said there weren’t jury trials from March until August, not only because of Indiana’s stay-at-home order that lasted from late March through early May, but also because there has not been a lot of jury trials in Jackson County this year.

Between August and November, six felony jury trials were conducted.

In the meantime, he said it’s important to practice safety in work places and government buildings.

Commissioners President Matt Reedy said during a commissioner’s meeting Tuesday morning that the Jackson Circuit Court has “put a lot of cases behind them this year.”

The order, written by Chief Justice of Indiana Loretta H. Rush, says, “The threat of exposure from any in-court proceeding during these conditions, even when conducted under strict protocols, is high. And any exposures from such proceedings contribute to prolonging the emergency.”

The decision to suspend jury trials was a unanimous decision by all justices of the Supreme Court.