Minnesota’s federal courts to resume jury trials, face unprecedented backlog

Judges in federal courtrooms across Minnesota are preparing to hold their first jury trials in more than six months and face an unprecedented backlog because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We probably have about 15 or so that will be tried in the last three to four months of this year," said U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Tunheim. "That’s a large number for one period of time."

Tunheim has conducted hearings, conferences and even criminal sentencing over video conference during the pandemic.

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But as criminal courts open later this month for trials with strict health protocols in place, those who represent criminal defendants are concerned about the implications of the backlog.

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Clare Diegel, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said further delays due to a backlog could result in a violation of a defendants’ constitutional rights.

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"The right to a speedy trial is really at issue here," Diegel said. "These are people who are presumed innocent and when you’re sitting there, waiting for your trial, presumed innocent, for weeks or months even now, you can’t work and you can’t take care of your family."

Diegel said the pandemic only further complicates the process for people who are being held in jail prior to their trial.

"We’ve seen how fast this virus can spread in jails, so now people are also at an increased risk of getting the virus and possibly losing their lives," Diegel said.

Because jury trials cannot be held remotely, Tunheim said it is important that a robust protocol be in place before welcoming people back into the courtroom.

"We’re being very, very careful so we can protect the health and safety of staff, parties, witnesses (and) jurors," he said.

Court staff spent the summer preparing a 22-page manual, detailing procedures when preparing for and holding in-person jury trials.

The protocol includes significant changes inside the courtroom, including plexiglass barriers in places where it is difficult to socially distance individuals.

"It’s going to look very different," Tunheim said.

Jurors will now sit wearing a mask with 6-foot tall plexiglass on three sides. Plexiglass will also separate attorneys from their clients. Masks, gloves and hand sanitizers are stocked on every table.

"We have had to reinvent our procedures," Tunheim said, noting that there will be no large stack of paper exhibits that will be passed around to jurors.

With these health safety measures in place, Diegel said they are "cautiously optimistic" that the process can get back on track without further interruption.

"It is imperative that we still do jury trials and do it in a way that’s safe," she said.