The chief judges in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties announced Tuesday that they’ve suspended jury trials, citing an increase in coronavirus cases.
Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said he was also suspending all in-person hearings and jail inmate transfers to the courthouse in his county.
The decisions by Ficarrotta and Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino came after their counties saw steep increases in their weekly virus positivity rates, or the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that come back positive.
In Pinellas, the rate was 7.2 percent the week from Dec. 20 to Dec. 26, according to Florida Department of Health data. The next week, from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2, it jumped to 11.4 percent. In Hillsborough, the change was even more dramatic over the same time period, spiking from 9.6 percent to 15.7 percent.
When the positivity rate is too high, it can indicate there isn’t enough widespread testing to capture all mild and asymptomatic cases in a region, allowing spread to continue. The World Health Organization set a recommendation for a 5 percent positivity rate or below for governments to reopen.
The state on Tuesday reported 15,431 coronavirus cases and 100 deaths.
The decisions come about a month after Rondolino suspended jury trials in Pasco County, which is part of the judicial circuit he oversees. Florida Supreme Court rules require that chief judges reevaluate their operational plans when their county’s positivity rate breaks 10 percent.
Courthouses suspended most in-person proceedings in March, when the virus started to appear in Florida. Some hearings moved online, but others, like jury trials, were suspended altogether. The situation has created a massive backlog of cases as defendants languish in Tampa Bay’s jails, which have seen their own virus outbreaks.
The fall brought a temporary trough of virus cases, and jury trials resumed in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco. But some felt it was too soon.
At the end of October, during the first jury trial held in Pinellas, now-retired Public Defender Bob Dillinger filed an emergency motion asking that trials be suspended once again. He wrote that the prosecutor on the case had come in contact with a virus-positive colleague days earlier and that the defendant was brought to the courthouse from the Pinellas County jail without first being tested. The motion was denied.
Hillsborough scheduled a three-week murder trial that was set to begin Jan. 11 in the case of Ronnie Oneal III, who is accused of killing his girlfriend and 9-year-old daughter and attempting to kill his 8-year old son in their Riverview home in 2018. Oneal, who is expected to invoke Florida’s stand your ground self-defense law, faces the death penalty if convicted.
But at a hearing Monday, the court learned that one of the prosecutors on the case was in quarantine after a possible exposure.
The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office asked to postpone the trial, but the judge denied the request.
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