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Trials may resume this month in New York courts

ALBANY — The administrators of the New York court system are working on a plan to resume some jury trials March 22.

Steps are being taken to continue with in-person proceeding in the courthouses even as judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers have yet to be placed into the COVID-19 vaccination eligibility group.

“We are in the process of consulting with our justice partners on these plans, and no final decisions will be made until we have completed that process,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said.

With positivity rates from virus testing steadily dipping in recent weeks, DiFiore said reopening of courts hinges on “the continued positive trajectory of the COVID metrics.”

The fact that there are now heightened concerns about variant strains of the coronavirus is making the situation “fluid and changeable,” the chief judge cautioned.

Contacted at his Plattsburgh office, Justin Meyer, who administers the assigned counsel program, said restarting trials is a needed step, though he noted there will be some challenges.

“I think it is going to be tough to find a space to sit 14 jurors, including the alternates,” Meyer said. “But it would be certainly welcome to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

The long pause on trials, he said, has resulted in “charges hanging over people’s heads month after month.”

In Cooperstown, Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl said the ability to maintain social distance in his local courthouse has him convinced it is safe to resume trials.

“We have plenty of room in the courthouse, and the infection rate is dropping to the point that I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Muehl said.

Muehl said his most recent trials were scheduled to take place last August but were canceled when two accused drug dealers, freed under changes in the bail law, fled the jurisdiction.

The long delay has caused problems, the veteran prosecutor said.

“It’s been hard because sometimes witnesses move away or victims change their minds,” he said.

With infection rates rising last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended portions of the Criminal Procedure Law requiring speedy trials, grand jury presentations and in-person appearances of defendants in some criminal matters.

Dennis Quirk, the president of the New York State Court Officers Association, said the delay in vaccinating judges and others involved in trials will create risks.

“The judges are bent out of shape about this,” Quirk said. “It doesn’t make sense that an Uber driver or the guy cutting cold-cuts in the delicatessen can get the vaccine, but they don’t want to give it to the judges who come to the courthouse on public transportation.”

DiFiore stressed in her statement that safety is paramount.

“You can be sure that we will make responsible decisions and that no lawyers, jurors or witnesses will be asked to report to our courthouses unless we are confident in our ability to ensure that proper health and safety protocols are in place,” she said.

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