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As Covid-19 Shuts Down Jury Trials and the Call for "Let My People Go"

Posted by David Pine | Jan 05, 2021 | 0 Comments

The Public Defender's office and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey have put forth a proposal to the New Jersey Supreme Court to release prisoners from jail who are awaiting a jury trial. The delay of criminal trials was necessary by concerns for the potential spread of the Sars' CoV-2 virus, which causes the respiratory disease coronavirus 19 (COVID-19).  On March 9, 2020, Governor Philip D. Murphy issued Executive Order No. 103, declaring a Public Health Emergency and a State of Emergency in New Jersey as a result of the threats and dangers associated with exposure to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).  All of the county courthouses were closed in late March 2020, and remote court hearings are currently taking place utilizing the Zoom application.

On April 10, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 124, stating that inmates in the custody of the New Jersey Department of Corrections "face a heightened risk of death or serious injury if they contract COVID-19, due to their age and/or underlying medical conditions. See Executive Order No. 124 (Murphy) (April 10, 2020). On July 22, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court authorized the resumption of jury trials in a hybrid format, with primarily virtual jury selection and socially distanced in-person trials. On November 16, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court stated that "the second wave of COVID-19 has struck New Jersey and the rest of the nation", and it issued an Order in which it was necessary to suspend in-person jury trials and in-person grand jury sessions based on COVID-19 trends and health and safety concerns. Existing virtual grand jury proceedings were authorized to continue in a virtual format.

An article regarding this issue was posted on NJ.Com on January 1, 2021, and it is entitled: "N.J. Prosecutor's Oppose Plan to Release Hundreds Behind Bars Awaiting Trial. Top Court Will Consider it Soon." 

As reported by the media, there were almost 5,560 people awaiting trial in the county jails as of last week in December 2020.  New Jersey state law generally requires trials to begin within six months after the indictment is returned from the grand jury.  The ACLU has argued that the continued delay of jury trials is unfair to people who have not been convicted of a crime and are stuck in limbo awaiting a jury trial as the Covid-19 virus spreads within the jail population. The New Jersey Attorney General and the State Prosecutor's Association has opposed the release of inmates pending trial.   The prosecutor's full 107-page brief is available here

Many of my clients have echoed the same sediments of inmates at other county detention facilities, that rooms within the jail are overcrowded and positive cases have hit multiple units.  Most, if not all of the inmates awaiting trial have been ordered detained pursuant to the due process of the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA). The Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) was enacted on August II, 2014, with an effective date of January 1, 2017. The Act has three principal components. First, it provides for pretrial detention of defendants who present such a serious risk of danger/ flight or obstruction that no combination of release conditions would otherwise be adequate. Second, it substituted the prior system^ s reliance on money bail for a system calling for an objective evaluation of each defendant's risk level and consideration of conditions of release that will be monitored by judicial employees. Finally, it established statutory speedy trial deadlines for defendants who are detained pending trial.

About the Author

David Pine

PASSAIC COUNTY CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY DAVID L. PINE A practicing criminal attorney since 1988, Mr. Pine graduated from Indiana University and received his J.D. from Western New England College School of Law. He is admitted to practice law in New Jersey and the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Mr. Pine was a law cl...


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