When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the Yakima County Superior Court took action to help slow its spread through social distancing.
Although most of these precautions have ended – limiting those attending trials to only the parties involved, jurors and court staff, installing plexiglass barriers in front of the court bench and the offices of the clerk – one measure remains: video appearances for defendants who are in custody while awaiting trial or trial.
The presiding judge in court said there were no plans to eliminate this item even though the county’s COVID risk continues to decline.
“It was a learning experience for us,” said judge Richard Bartheld. “We learned that we have fewer incidents of problems in the courtroom.”
But the head of the Yakima County Public Defender’s Office believes in-person hearings should return out of concern for fairness and recognition of a defendant’s humanity.
“We shouldn’t treat people who are poor and can’t afford bail any differently than people who can afford it,” said Paul Kelley, director of the county’s Court-appointed Attorneys Department.
Prior to March 2020, defendants held in Yakima County Jail would be brought to a courtroom in the basement of the jail for various hearings, including preliminary appearances, arraignment, and sentencing.
When Governor Jay Inslee issued his order directing residents to stay home unless absolutely necessary, the court switched to using Zoom teleconferencing software for appearances, with defendants appearing in court from a another room in the prison – or their cells if they couldn’t be moved – appearing on a large screen on the wall of the courtroom.
The webcams also showed the judge and the lawyers arguing in person, with some lawyers also appearing via Zoom. The proceedings are streamed on the court’s website.
A similar system has been implemented at the Yakima County Juvenile Justice Center, where defendants appear from a “virtual courtroom”, sometimes with family also appearing via Zoom.
In-person return trials
Eventually, jury trials resumed and most restrictions were lifted, with the exception of Zoom hearings, especially for those held in jail awaiting trial or sentencing.
Kelley, the public defender, said in 2020 it was understood these were temporary measures that would be lifted when the COVID danger passed.
“We raised concerns about it because we could see what was going on,” Kelley said. “We followed and implemented procedures with health and safety in mind. It was an emergency reason.
Kelley said an in-person hearing is preferable because it provides a measure of accountability for the court when a defendant stands before the judge in person rather than appearing on a monitor.
But Bartheld and others see the benefits of the virtual system outweighing the need to return to in-person hearings.
One is security. When accused appear in person, correctional officers must be on the lookout for signs that an inmate is about to become violent, whether towards another inmate or court staff.
“You can’t put a Norteño and a Sureño on hold to go to court together,” Yakima County District Attorney Joe Brusic said. “You have to keep the defendants separate.”
Videoconferencing, Brusic said, means less stress for prison staff, who must carefully coordinate movements within the prison to separate rival gang members.
Kelley, who was once punched in the face in court by a man he was representing during a detention hearing, said courtroom attacks are rare and have never been cited as an excuse before, they should not be used now. .
Some of Brusic’s deputies also appear via Zoom, and while Brusic would like to see his staff fully back in the office, he said a hybrid system works both in the office and in the courtroom.
The juvenile court moved to a virtual system during COVID, and Candi Shute, the juvenile court administrator, said the system will remain in place.
“It’s useful in situations that aren’t related to COVID,” Shute said. “There’s less anxiety (for a young defendant) sitting in a virtual courtroom with someone, as opposed to being in the gallery.”
In one instance, Shute said she was in the room with an accused, and as she sat off camera, she only had to give a simple reminder to “be respectful,” something that doesn’t happen. would not be produced in an open courtroom.
If a defendant who tests negative for the virus wishes to appear in person, they will be permitted to attend the regular courtroom, Shute said.