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Could delta variant throw another wrench in Utah's legal system?

After waiting out the pandemic, many are finally getting their day in court. But will the COVID-19 delta variant upend attempts to whittle down the backlog of criminal cases?

After waiting out the pandemic, many are finally getting their day in court. But will the COVID-19 delta variant upend attempts to whittle down the backlog of criminal cases? (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Shipments of COVID-19 vaccines arriving in Utah in spring spelled relief for the state's criminal justice system.

But the reassurance they provided may be slipping away. The highly contagious delta variant is gaining ground in Utah less than two months after the Utah Supreme Court gave the green light to restart jury trials in the Beehive State.

New cases of the virus have ticked up steadily since mid-May, when just 12% of cases were attributed to the variant, according to the Utah Department of Health. By the last week of June, it accounted for nearly 80% of new cases.

There's no immediate plan in Utah to call off jury trials again. But Utah's state and federal systems are keeping close tabs on the numbers and asking anyone who is not vaccinated to wear a mask.

Other states' legal systems are dealing with effects of a resurgence in cases. After a two-and-a-half-week civil trial in Miami earlier this month, several attorneys and judges tested positive for COVID-19, and at least one was hospitalized.

A June order from Utah's justices opened the courts up for trials, allowing many defendants who had waited more than a year to finally get their day in court.

The justices haven't issued any new guidance based on the spread of the variant, confirmed states courts spokeswoman Valeria Jimenez. But she said Utahns should be assured the courts "are taking every necessary health precaution and following local health guidelines to move forward with in-person trials and eliminate the in-person jury trial backlog."

There are at least 1,700 mothballed cases in Salt Lake County alone, estimates District Attorney Sim Gill. While the majority of charges that his office files get resolved in plea deals, many of the most time-intensive and serious cases — wherein defendants face lengthy prison terms or even the death penalty — won't come to a close without a verdict from a jury.

A small number of trials took place in the pandemic under a pilot program that required face masks and took place in Utah's biggest courtrooms, with witnesses testifying form within a see-through box.

But many more are now being scheduled as attorneys pull long hours to keep pace. Semi-retired judges are also back on the bench to help churn through the pandemic backlog.

Gill said his prosecutors have only just begun to make a dent in the pile that's grown steadily since March 2020.

"We've increased those proceedings and we're trying to work through it. But the uncertainty of this delta variant still looms there," Gill said, calling the contagious strain of COVID-19 "something that you have to acknowledge."

Gill doesn't believe the variant is cause to call off trials again, but said he would support a requirement for everyone in the courthouse to wear a mask.

Utah's federal court also returned to in-person trials in May, but just one at a time, said U.S. District Clerk of Court D. Mark Jones. Three criminal cases and two civil ones have taken place so far.

Many hearings in the state and federal systems continue to take place over video. But Richard Mauro, executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, said it's simply hard to get things done in only two dimensions.

The vast majority of lawyers in his office got their shots, Mauro noted, but the variant is responsible for "breakthrough" cases among those fully vaccinated. He wonders if its prevalence in Utah could harm the courts' ability to get potential jurors to show up.

The office represents people who can't afford a lawyer on their own. It's been especially difficult for the public defenders to step away for a moment to confer with clients, in part because many lack good WiFi and a steady phone plan, he said. It's much different than speaking with them outside the courtroom just before they appear before a judge.

"We've lost that process," Mauro said. "It's just one day at a time, trying to figure it out, and now you have these complications of these surging numbers again. It's just maddening."


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