Lawyers want top court officials to be in the hot seat amid lack of jury trials in Orléans County

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Vermont Superior Court in Newport. Photo by Justin Trombly / VTDigger

An unlikely duo from Orleans County is seeking testimony from senior Vermont court officials on their decision to drop jury trials over concerns related to Covid-19 in that northeastern jurisdiction.

Defense attorney David Sleigh and Orleans County attorney Jennifer Barrett argue the ruling has slowed criminal cases and communication has not been clear.

“The main function of the judiciary is to adjudicate cases which have a direct impact on the liberty interests of the citizens of Vermont,” Sleigh, a St. Johnsbury-based lawyer, said in an interview.

“Their No. 1 job is to provide the possibility of jury trials where the liberty of individuals is at stake,” Sleigh said, “and they have been completely opaque about their plans to fulfill their obligations in Orleans County. ”

Sleigh is pushing for 26 criminal cases to be dismissed due to the current lack of jury trials in the Orleans County Superior Criminal Court in Newport.

He said those cases were all submitted before the governor promulgated the declaration of state of emergency in March 2020. Charges against his clients range from excessive speed to aggravated sexual assault.

Some courts in Vermont, including the Newport Criminal Court, have remained closed for jury trials even after Gov. Phil Scott lifted emergency pandemic restrictions on June 15, Sleigh wrote in a recent filing .

“There is no question that the pandemic has turned every one of our lives upside down and made us face the difficult realization that we may never return to a sense of true normalcy,” Sleigh wrote. “However, we can no longer count on the pandemic to excuse our neglect of our criminal justice system. “

Sleigh wrote he wanted to know how the Vermont judiciary is spending the $ 7.5 million it received in Covid-19 federal funds and to learn why more action has not been taken to address the backlog criminal cases in the county of Orleans.

He wants to question Pat Gabel, the administrator of the Vermont court, and Chief Justice of the Superior Court Brian Grearson, among others.

Barrett, the county’s top prosecutor, filed her own case late last week, joining Sleigh in her claim. Barrett wrote that she was ready to take the cases to court, but the court system “did not provide any communication to lawyers regarding the resumption of jury trials.”

The prosecutor said she had suggested other locations in Orleans County where jury trials could be held safely. Further, in cases where a change of venue “would not prejudice the accused or the state”, she requested that jury trials be transferred to the adjoining Caledonia County Superior Criminal Court in St. Johnsbury. .

“It is fundamentally unfair for the state to bear the burden of legal decisions regarding the pandemic without weighing the reasonableness of the delay,” Barrett wrote.

Barrett, in an interview on Monday, said it was important to defendants and victims that jury trials proceed without further delay.

“It’s a strange position to be in a situation where the state is awarded the delay by the court, but we have no control over the delay,” Barrett said. “It’s very weird.”

Court officials said the Orleans County Criminal Court building, which does not have a working heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, was not approved for jury trials due to concerns about the possible spread of Covid-19.

One of the court expenses that Sleigh questioned relates to nearly $ 60,000 spent on a public relations consultancy in South Burlington, run by Dennise Casey.

Grearson said in an email response to questions on Monday that he was not aware of the documents Sleigh filed in the case. He also said he could not comment on the pending litigation.

“The judiciary does not have its own communications staff and the pandemic has necessitated a dramatic increase in the need to communicate the constant changes to the public, the media and the bar. As a result, an independent contractor has been hired to provide those services which were and remain necessary due to the pandemic, ”Grearson said of public relations services.

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