SPRINGFIELD – For years, the grand juries of Hampden Superior Court have met nearly 40 hours a week to review a never-ending line of criminal cases ripe for the legal pipeline.
A vital cog in the workings of justice, these panels of 23 area residents are tasked with deciding whether to move defendants from the district to the superior court, where the most serious cases land and sentences are handed down. higher.
While the modern criminal justice system would crumble without them, little light is shed on grand juries as their procedures are secretive and heavily restricted. Therefore, they are not good candidates for Zoom meetings or teleconferences, the communication platforms of choice in the midst of Coronavirus pandemic.
“The prospect of a virtual grand jury was unachievable,” Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said in an interview, although Massachusetts trial court officials saw it as an option.
Gulluni said a grand jury formed early last year was suspended during the pandemic, and an order from the state’s Supreme Court of Justice did not allow a new one until October. Like the travel and hospitality industry, education, and government, COVID-19 has left the criminal justice world struggling to find alternatives to stay afloat.
Jury trials in state courts were due to resume this week, but a recent order of the Massachusetts trial court postponed them at least until Jan.11. Most routine hearings are held remotely, except in emergencies.
For grand juries in Hampden County and other locations across the state with busy workloads, COVID-19 restrictions include significantly fewer courthouse hours than usual, bathrooms and rooms. designated elevators, and tough choices for district attorneys.
“We make tough decisions about what cases should go to the grand jury. We are very wary of which cases to bring, ”said Gulluni. “Only the most serious cases and those subject to time restrictions are presented. “
As the pandemic persisted, Gulluni and other district attorneys were aware that cases could not languish indefinitely in district courts. Some cases, including murder, aggravated assault, sex crimes and other offenses, can only be prosecuted in superior court.
As other industries looked at their results and the Dow Jones, prosecutors and defense attorneys thought of speedy trials.
The constitution stipulates that the accused must be tried within a certain time limit. Likewise, cases must be transferred from the district to the superior court within a certain period of time.
“We have cases where at some point a district court judge is going to say, ‘I’m not going any further.’ They would eventually reach a fork in the road, ”Gulluni said.
“We really had a crisis in our hands and needed a functioning grand jury to hear these cases. Otherwise, there would have been a serious compromise for public safety in Hampden County, ”he added.
Laura S. Gentile, clerk of the Hampden Superior Court, said departments from the height of the state trial court to county offices have worked together to ensure the safe functioning of the courts.
“We have tried very, very, very hard to minimize the risk to the public and to the employees, and all the departments are working together,” said Gentile. “Judges, clerks, clerks… to make sure we have as little exposure to each other as possible. “
Gentile said she was bringing half of her staff in and out of the Registrar’s Suite on the third floor of the Roderick Ireland courthouse on State Street. As long as she can keep up with the workload, Gentile said she aims to keep the half-on-site / half-distance schedule until mid-January as dire warnings about virus outbreaks persist. .
This means diverting as many cases as possible to remote hearings and putting drop boxes for pleading in cases, instead of hosting hundreds of lawyers a day to file motions and complaints in person. The interior of the building is also filled with plexiglass dividers, and appointments are required for anyone wishing to enter the clerk’s office to review the files.
“It will be a balancing act,” said Gentile. “Is it scary? It sure is scary. But we have work to do, just like health care workers or people who work in grocery stores. We cannot all stay at home.