There hasn’t been a jury trial in Alaska in 3 months. How has COVID-19 changed the state’s justice system?

A woman leaves the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau on Feb. 27, 2017. Jury trials have been suspended since March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and court officials said they could look vastly different when they resume. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

When Alaska Court System officials suspended all jury trials in March because of the pandemic, it included an upcoming trial for Mary Ferguson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer, the Sitka Police Department.

“So, I definitely felt devastated because this has already been going on two years,” she said.

Many Alaskans’ court cases have been thrown into legal limbo because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been no jury trials in state courts for three months, and they won’t resume until at least September, if then.

Angie Kemp, the state’s top prosecutor for northern Southeast Alaska, said they’ve been reaching out to victims waiting for trial in their cases.

“By and large, the feedback I’ve gotten is typically very understanding. They understand there’s a lot of uncertainty in what’s coming,” Kemp said.

She expects that when jury trials do resume in state court, there will be a big bottleneck.

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger said suspending most court proceedings starting in March was the safe thing to do.

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Wesley Early/KOTZ)

“We felt like our position was different than the local hardware store, for example. In a lot of our court proceedings, we require people to come to court. We require juries to come to court. We require prisoners and other defendants to come to court. And so we have a special obligation to protect those people,” he said.

Now, he expects a slow, step-by-step approach in resuming trials.  He said there are several options courts are considering.

In addition to wearing a mask, everyone may be required to have a health screening before entering a courthouse. Plexiglass barriers may be installed in courtrooms. Prospective jurors may be questioned one at a time by attorneys instead in a room packed with dozens of others. Jurors may spread out in a vacant courtroom during deliberations.

“I think different judges will use different approaches and we’ll learn from each other,” Bolger said.

There may be more teleconferenced or videoconferenced testimony, especially from out-of-state witnesses unable to quarantine in Alaska before a trial.

“Our own geographic challenges have really helped us to be prepared in doing things remotely. Many other courts in other states have not allowed a telephonic appearance until now,” Bolger said.

Robert Henderson, assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, expects some legal challenges if trial witnesses testify remotely. Every defendant has a constitutional right to be physically present to confront their accuser in court.

“Is a witness testifying via videoconference, is that meeting the confrontation requirement of the Constitution? That’s one. The second is: Can a jury accurately assess the credibility of a witness who’s testifying, either through telephone testimony or through videoconferencing, video testimony?” Henderson said.

He also expects challenges from defendants who believe they’ve been harmed because their constitutional rights to speedy trials have been violated; Alaska’s 120-day speedy trial rule is currently suspended.

As an alternative to trial, he said prosecutors may resolve backlogged cases other ways, like negotiating plea deals on lesser charges.

Defense attorney James Christie was preparing for a high-profile homicide case in Anchorage when trials were suspended. He said when trials do resume, it may be harder for him to select a diverse jury of a defendant’s peers. He’s worried juries will be filled by more retired or independently wealthy Alaskans instead of  — for example —  working class Alaskans, especially those who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“Asking those people, working class people, to come and miss out on their opportunity to start earning for their family while they are on jury service is going to be a really tough, tough ask,” he said.

Meanwhile, former Sitka police officer Mary Ferguson said the delay is not helping her in her lawsuit against her former employer. Her attorneys still send her bills for working on the case, and witness memories are fading.

“If I were to have my trial in May, no matter the outcome, then I could better plan my next steps, my next journey, my next chapter in life. I feel like this is just a big weight on my shoulders. It’s tough battle, you know. A tough fight,” Ferguson said.

She said she’s trying to be patient. Her trial is now scheduled to start September 21st, but she knows it may get pushed back even further.