Will a massive court backlog in Vermont mean criminal cases get tossed?

Published: Nov. 10, 2021 at 5:18 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Hundreds of criminal cases in Vermont could get tossed out thanks to a huge court backlog. The judiciary says the pandemic is largely to blame for the pileup of cases, as some counties struggle to get back to full court operations.

“Ninety-five percent of these cases resolve without a jury trial but without that pressure, it’s just not happening,” Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett said.

She’s talking about the more than 600 criminal cases, ranging from low-level misdemeanors to murders, which have been pending for over a year in her county.

Some courthouses in the state are not open due to public health concerns, making it nearly impossible to clear court dockets.

The Orleans courthouse is one of the buildings still closed, and not a single jury trial has been held since the start of the pandemic.

With no trial looming, Barrett can’t negotiate plea deals that resolve most cases.

“Until people’s feet are held to the fire and there’s some ultimate disposition that’s going to occur that there’s no desire or motivation to resolve their cases,” she said.

The backlog grew to 2,400 cases in Franklin County, leading Superior Court Judge Martin Maley to sign an order last week to potentially dismiss hundreds of the lowest level offenses. It’s a plan Franklin County State’s Attorney Jim Hughes supports.

“To treat crime victims from here on out better, we need to be more prompt,” Hughes said.

Brian Grearson, a former chief Superior Court judge who recently retired, says each of the 23 courthouses around Vermont have their own specific limitations, that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some, like Grand Isle are plagued with a lack of security; others, such as Orleans, are limited by space and air quality issues. Washington County is deemed safer and can hold trials.

While the Vermont Department of Health has no current mandates in place for COVID, Grearson says there’s a higher standard for the judiciary because people are compelled to go to court, such as for jury duty.

“We have to make sure when we bring folks into the courthouse under those circumstances that the conditions are safe and continue to be safe,” Grearson said.

The question remains-- are people being brought to justice in counties where trials have only just started after 20 months, or have yet to begin?

“It’s a real intangible impact that damages people’s lives waiting this long for resolution and in some of my cases, the cases have been pending five years,” said David Sleigh, a defense attorney.

“Are people getting justice? Yes. Are they having to wait? Yes. But it does vary from county to county how these issues in the backlog are being addressed,” Grearson said.

In Franklin County, that means tossing cases, something the Orleans state’s attorney does not want to do.

“I think that dismissing cases will only incentivize people to not resolve their cases, right? They’re going to hold out and hope maybe their case will be next, maybe the court will broaden the type of cases they’re dismissing,” Barrett said.

State’s Attorney Barrett and Defense Attorney Sleigh are working on a different solution, pushing to get Orleans trials moved to a different building deemed COVID safe. But that hasn’t yet been approved.

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