SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ per month. Save 90%.
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ per month. Save 90%.

Public defender raises concerns about restart of jury trials in San Juan County

Jury trials have been suspended since March

Joshua Kellogg
Farmington Daily Times
Aztec District Court is pictured on March 17, 2020.
  • The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts sent out a press release on behalf of the Eleventh Judicial District Court on July 22 that jury trials were resuming in San Juan County district and magistrate courts.
  • The plan for San Juan County was submitted on June 19, revised on July 2 and approved on July 8, according to a copy of the 241-page plan.
  • District Public Defender Matthew Cockman said he was not sure the plan to restart jury trials allows defendants to have a fair trial.

FARMINGTON — The magistrate and district courts in Aztec and Farmington are preparing for their first jury trial since the COVID-19 pandemic started, raising safety and judicial concerns for the area public defenders.

The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts sent out a press release on behalf of the Eleventh Judicial District Court on July 22 that jury trials were resuming in San Juan County district and magistrate courts.

Jury trials had been suspended since the New Mexico Supreme Court issued an order on March 17.

The suspension was lifted on May 28 by the state Supreme Court, with each court system required to submit a plan to detail what operating procedures and precautions will be implemented.

The plan for San Juan County was submitted on June 19, revised on July 2 and approved on July 8, according to a copy of the 241-page plan.

The first jury trial will be for Kendrick Henry, who faces felony charges of driving while intoxicated. It starts on July 31 in the Aztec District Court building, according to Jodie Schwebel, the deputy court executive officer for the Eleventh Judicial District.

A good portion of the measures have already been implemented, including face mask requirements and temperature checks for those entering the courthouse.

The new plan also details enforcing social distancing of at least 6 feet by using floor marking and replacing benches with chairs.

Visitors will now use a scanner to submit documents to the court in the clerk's office, removing person to person contact of handling documents.

Most of the new measures focus on procedures during a jury trial including handling the crowd jury selection attracts into the courtroom.

Smaller groups of prospective jurors will be brought into the courtroom at a time.

Schwebel said a typical juror pool of about 75 people has been reduced for Henry's trial to about 40 people. Those individuals are split into two groups of 20.

Those jurors will receive hand sanitizer and masks in a wellness kit when they report for jury duty. Only one jury trial will be scheduled at a time to reduce the number of people in the courthouse.

The witness stand and microphone used by attorneys will be sanitized between each use.

Bench conferences involving attorneys and the judge will be move to the judge's chambers, letting the jurors remain in the court room.

San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien told The Daily Times he believes the court has come up with the best solution but acknowledged it will be difficult and a tedious process to conduct a trial under those conditions.

He does anticipate jury selection taking a lot longer, with the first day of the trial focusing entirely on the process.

District public defender Matthew Cockman said he was not sure the plan to restart jury trials allows defendants to have a fair trial and doesn't know what a fair trial looks like during a pandemic.

"We just don't have historical basis to know what a fair trial looks like under these conditions," he said.

He said the Aztec office of the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender was not consulted on the plan.

Having witnesses wear face masks reduces the ability of jurors to observe facial expressions to determine their credibility, Cockman said.

He also sees efforts to speak privately with his client adding unnecessary time to the trial length with social distancing requirements.

Defendants and their attorneys are required to sit 6 feet apart and can communicate with notepads, texting and email or request a short recess for a private conference for private communications.

"Accused citizens have a right to a day in court, but it needs to be a fair process," Cockman said. "We really, really have serious reservations that these processes can be."

Cockman also didn't understand what metric or "triggering event" the state Supreme Court used to restart jury trials.

The May 28 order from the Supreme Court does not cite any specific metric or criteria, aside from a desire to restart jury trials "in a manner that is consistent with the latest precautionary measure."

The Daily Times interviewed Cockman on July 23, the same day that the state saw its highest number of new coronavirus cases since the pandemic began — 343. That same day, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham delayed the start of in-person instruction in state public schools.

"The unknown is frightening, especially if the unknown leads to death," Cockman said.

Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e