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Hundreds stuck in SD jails awaiting trials that are on-hold amid COVID-19 crisis

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Posted at 2:19 PM, Aug 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-11 21:34:15-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Hundreds of people are sitting in San Diego County jails waiting for jury trials that are postponed indefinitely because of the pandemic. ABC10 News interviewed San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan about concerns over whether justice is being delayed.

ABC10 News looked into the issue after the wife of a man who's locked up in a San Diego County jail emailed the newsroom for help. ABC10 News is not revealing her identity. Her husband fears retaliation over his case. She wrote to ABC10 News that he’s been waiting for more than a year for his day in court but there is no telling when that will be. In her series of emails, she explained that he was wrongfully accused of a crime and that she doesn’t have the money to bail him out. “Most of the other men incarcerated with my husband have been told to expect no further steps in their cases until early next year,” she added.

He's being held at George Bailey Detention Center and is one of the many inmates who were scheduled to be tried in front of San Diego County juries until jury trials were halted months ago because of the COVID-19 threat.

“These criminal defendants have a right to a fair and speedy trial. How do you uphold that 6th amendment constitutional right in the middle of a pandemic?” ABC10 News asked San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. “Upholding those constitutional rights is so important to us but these requests are based on these very unprecedented times,” she stated.

DA Stephan added that close to 2,500 jury trials have been postponed. Trials were stopped on March 17th. Non-jury trials are currently in progress through a remote virtual process. San Diego courtrooms are now being retrofitted with protective measures like plexiglass barriers. Local court officials have requested another extension from the Judicial Council of California for jury trials to be postponed through mid-September. That could be further delayed depending on how virus case numbers trend.

ABC10 News filed a public records request for details on all the people who are waiting to be tried by jury. The DA’s Office returned a list of thousands of defendants.

The majority are out of custody, but the DA confirmed that there are roughly 360 felony defendants and 50 misdemeanor defendants who’ve been sitting in jail until their trials can happen.

“Most of the cases receive what we call probable cause hearings where a neutral party- a judge- has heard the evidence and believes that it is sufficient to continue to hold them,” said DA Stephan.

She told ABC10 News that most of the felony defendants are being held on very serious, violent offenses and the same applies to defendants being held on misdemeanors. “Most of those [misdemeanor cases] are domestic violence where there is a danger to the victim or multiple DUI offenders,” she added.

“The number of defendants has dropped dramatically that are normally held in our detention facilities,” San Diego County Superior Court Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne recently told ABC10 News. She said that she’s been working with the District Attorney’s Office, the Office of the Public Defender and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to lower the jail population of non-violent cases and release the elderly and others with compromised immune systems.

As of Monday, the Sheriff’s Department’s website showed that 3,748 individuals were being held in San Diego County jails. DA Stephan said that’s a 20% population reduction since the start of the health crisis.

“What do you say to the defendants who are in custody and claim their innocence and in the eyes of the law are innocent until they are proven guilty but they are being held, indefinitely?” ABC10 News asked DA Stephan. “The only thing we can't have is a jury trial right now,” she responded, in part.

“We are all very, very anxious and looking forward to having jury trials. It's the best of our democracy,” she added.
Once jury trials are able to resume, D Stephan said that their office with prioritize serious, violent felony cases and defendants who are approaching their maximum sentence.

The Sheriff’s Department sent ABC10 News the following statement.

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sheriff's Department is collaborating with our criminal justice partners on the video court appearance process. Every jail has been outfitted with audio-visual equipment for these virtual hearings. The Sheriff's Department produces defendants based on the Superior Court's official calendar. Although, social visits have been suspended, defense attorneys have retained the ability to meet with their clients in person at the detention facilities, via telephone or video conferencing, to ensure the process moves forward as fluidly as possible. Video hearings have eliminated much of the custody time for those who have been arrested and in need of arraignment. These video hearings have significantly reduced the number of persons who would still be in custody awaiting in-person appearances."

"The Sheriff's Department is committed to making this process as efficient as possible, until the courthouses can be re-opened for proceedings. Those who remain in our custody are awaiting an arraignment hearing, have been remanded to the custody of the Sheriff's Department pending further court proceedings, sentenced to local custody or pending transfer to state prison.”

The Office of the Public Defender sent ABC10 News the following statement.

“Our clients are always our priority. The challenges of the pandemic have not changed our mission to protect the rights, liberties, and dignity of our clients by providing the best legal representation possible under these extreme circumstances.”