Chicago’s courthouses and prisons were disrupted again as the latest wave of COVID swept the city: “We will all face these challenges” | Crime and Courts
CHICAGO – Former Ald. Ricardo Munoz was scheduled to hold a personal conviction hearing in Chicago federal court on Wednesday, but instead the parties were back on the phone discussing what to do in the face of the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic.
US District Judge John Kness said during the brief hearing that he did not consider it advisable to hold a court building hearing “due to the very volatile public health circumstances” surrounding the Omicron variant.
Munoz’s attorney, law professor Richard Kling, agreed, saying his office at the Chicago-Kent College of Law had been locked down for several weeks, preventing him from accessing any information and computer equipment he would need in the future.
“I’m sure you all know that it will be very difficult to predict when circumstances will be such that we will all be comfortable having a personal hearing,” said Kness, setting a status date for mid-February.
It was a flashback to earlier stages of the pandemic as both the US Dirksen Courthouse and the Leighton Criminal Court building suffered closings and months of phone and video conferencing hearings.
The conviction of Munoz, who pleaded guilty to spending campaign money on personal belongings, was the best-known cancellation to date due to the recent wave of COVID-19 in a Chicago courthouse. Both, like many other government buildings, remain open to business, although there has been an increase in visitors and employees who tested positive for the virus in recent weeks.
Many Cook County judges have tried videoconferencing to get away from trial; some at the Leighton Criminal Court Building have been purely personal for months. Most, however, operate in a hybrid fashion, with some hearings being held via Zoom and others being held in the courtroom.
45 judges have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic – nine of them this week, according to a spokeswoman for Cook County’s Office of Chief Justice Timothy Evans.
Meanwhile, at least 44 people in the Dirksen courthouse were diagnosed with COVID-19 after staying in the courthouse since mid-December, according to letters from US District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer to court staff.
“One day I won’t have any positive test results to report,” Pallmeyer recently wrote in a letter on Tuesday in which four new cases were reported. “Today is not that day.”
In a statement to the Tribune, Thomas Bruton, secretary for the Northern District of Illinois, said officials “closely monitor public health information and strictly adhere to safety protocols” during the work of the federal court.
“Although we regularly report on people who tested positive in the building, we are not yet aware of any transmissions of the virus within the courthouse,” wrote Bruton. “However, we will continue to monitor the situation and take the necessary steps to protect our employees and the public.”
Impact on Prisons
The virus is also growing at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on West Van Buren Street, where many federal detainees are being held. Earlier this week, 109 prisoners – about 18% of the total population – have currently tested positive, according to the US Bureau of Prisons website. That number had dropped to 73 prisoners by the end of the week. No deaths were reported.
Meanwhile, 404 people in custody tested positive for COVID-19 at Cook County Jail on the Southwest Side, according to Sheriff Tom Dart’s office on Wednesday. That is about 7 percent of the prisoners. Additionally, 478 sheriff’s clerks, a category that includes law enforcement officers, court security officers and more, were positive on Wednesday.
The federal prison breakout has already had an impact on court hearings. On Thursday, for example, a hearing of Adel Daoud, the Hillside man who tried to blow up a loop bar, was canceled after US judge John Lee wrote in a minute-by-minute order that he was ” been informed that the MCC has imposed additional restrictions ”. due to the recent surge in COVID infections. “
The numbers reflect the overall situation with the Omicron surge across the state, with one-day positive tests and hospital admissions hitting their highest levels since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.
Chicago’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Allison Arwady said she hoped the Chicago omicrones surge would peak by the end of January, but added that at that point it would be impossible to say for sure.
Great trials are ahead
The recent surge in the pandemic comes as several high-profile, personal jury trials are set to begin in the Dirksen Court, including the trials of Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson on February 1st and Senator Thomas Cullerton on February 22nd.
Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, faces embezzlement charges for alleging he pocketed nearly $ 275,000 in salary and benefits from the Teamsters union despite doing little or no work.
Thompson, nephew and grandson of two mayors, is charged with tax crimes resulting from the collapse of a bank in the Daleys’ Bridgeport neighborhood.
So far, the court has continued to hold jury trials using the same protocols established in April when trials resumed after a six-month hiatus.
Precautions include a testing program that requires jurors, attorneys, and other study participants to perform a saliva-based COVID-19 test up to twice a week for the duration of each trial. Others who are expected to attend a negotiation or other face-to-face hearing for more than two days must also undergo a test.
Social distancing and the wearing of masks were constant in the courthouse. To avoid overcrowding, only one attempt can be made on a given day, and only one attempt can be made per floor of the high-rise at a time.
In addition, reporters and spectators are not allowed to enter the courtrooms themselves, but rather see them from an overflow room with a live video feed.
Bruton said the northern county of Illinois is one of the most successful in the country at safely conducting jury trials amid the ongoing health crisis.
“With these protocols, we’ve been able to select more than 62 juries since the pandemic began,” said Bruton. “Since April 2021, there have only been five judges of 53 juries that tested positive, and we didn’t have to explain any mistakes. “
He said the district’s 2,197 trial hours in 2021 were second only to the Southern District of New York, which logged 3,205.
The court also hosted a free COVID-19 booster clinic in the lobby before Christmas, which was open to the public and doing 200 to 400 shots a day, Bruton said.
Cook County’s criminal trials restarted in March after a year-long hiatus, and Leighton saw about one a week in May and June, according to Chief Judge Evans’ office. While the wearing of masks is strictly enforced in courthouses, juries at Leighton are not being tested for COVID-19 like their counterparts in federal courts.
Reduced social distancing requirements significantly expanded jury trial capacity over the summer, and Leighton hosted dozens of jury trials over the past year. According to Evans’ office, dozens of others have been earmarked for jury trials that have been postponed, ended in pleadings, or moved to a bank trial instead.
But Leighton has hosted a number of high profile jury trials – like that of actor Jussie Smollett for misreporting a hate crime and the murder trial of Wyndham Lathem – as well as complex trials like a double homicide in Edgewater involving an extremely violent drug and robbery crew.
Case backlog remains
The court’s extensive slowdowns have caused a major backlog in crime cases over the past year – one that has shrunk significantly, but has not gone away, according to Cook County Prosecutor’s Office figures.
Prosecutors started with around 25,900 to 32,200 pending crime cases in 2022, the office said. That number is much lower compared to what the office calls the peak of the backlog in March 2021, when there were between 30,000 and 36,000 pending crimes, officials said.
In February 2020, the last full month of regular court operations, around 21,000 proceedings were pending, the office said. That means prosecutors are still facing 23 to 53 percent cases, which is above the pre-pandemic status quo.
Prosecutor Kim Foxx said last year the office may have to drop cases en masse to clean up the backlog. According to the office, this wave of layoffs never materialized.
In fact, prosecutors dropped fewer cases in 2021 than in 2019. Of all crime cases closed last year, around 33 percent ended in dismissal, compared with 39 percent in 2019. The proportion of dismissals last year is closer to 2018, than 30 percent of resolved cases ended with charges dropped.
According to a statement from the public prosecutor’s office, there was also no expected flood of litigation claims after the urgent procedure clock ticked again.
“Currently, Cook County prosecutors are resolving cases at pre-COVID-19 levels,” the statement said. “Although it didn’t come to fruition, our (auxiliary prosecutors) worked diligently to resolve the cases in anticipation of a flood of litigation claims following the lifting of the toll for the Speedy Trial on October 1st. We’re back to pre-COVID levels as the ASAs worked through these difficult circumstances to resolve cases and work towards justice. “
A permanent ordinance of the federal court, updated by Pallmeyer in December, allows most criminal proceedings other than jury trials – including first appearances and hearings on the bond, indictments, confessions of guilt and convictions – to be conducted via video or conference call, as long as the parties agree.
This order expires on April 4th.
In the meantime, those who request a face-to-face hearing, like former councilor Munoz, may be forced to wait.
“I hope you all stay safe and sound,” Judge Kness told the parties on Wednesday before signing off. “We will all meet these challenges … and come to a hearing in due course.”
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