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Florida courts grapple with how to keep cases moving

Jury trials were suspended statewide a month ago. As the coronavirus continues its spread, court officials ponder ways to keep cases moving while protecting public health.

TAMPA — The judge took the bench Wednesday morning and called the first case, but the courtroom seemed to stand still.

Spectator benches were empty. The jury box was vacant. Tabletops normally stacked with legal papers were bare.

No defendants. No lawyers. No families of the victims or the accused.

On Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Nash’s computer screen, nine floating lawyer heads appeared in Brady Bunch-style blocks, each waiting for their cases to be called. This is Zoom court, a socially-distant form of jurisprudence.

Since the coronavirus pandemic forced most Florida court operations to cease more than a month ago, judges have kept cases moving through virtual hearings. It works for some things, but not everything. Courts still can’t have trials, and that’s creating big complications.

As shutdowns swept the nation in mid March to stem the spread of COVID-19, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady put most court matters on hold statewide. He encouraged hearings by telephone, but suspended all jury proceedings as well as the rules governing a defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

“This work cannot grind to a halt,” Canady said in a video message to Florida’s legal community. “But it is essential that our work be done in a way that it protects the public health. So, a great deal of our work will necessarily be delayed.”

What will justice delayed look like?

Concern has grown locally about a backlog of cases. On the criminal side, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Tampa Bay area cut more plea deals. Police made fewer arrests and the state sought charges less often for petty offenses. And some of the most serious criminal matters have been put off.

“The backlog of cases means it’s going to take longer to hold people accountable for their crimes, delay justice for victims, and make it more difficult for us to protect everyone’s constitutional rights,” said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.

Judge Christopher Nash of Florida's Thirteenth Circuit Court uses Zoom video conferencing software to hear arguments with counsel in a bond reduction hearing for Yuniel Hinojosa Gallardo in a racketeering case on Wednesday at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in downtown Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In a video-equipped courtroom usually reserved for first appearance hearings, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Nick Nazaretian wore a set of blue gloves as he heard probation violation cases Wednesday.

Instead of standing before him in court, the defendants appeared on live video feeds from the Falkenburg and Orient Road jails. Clad in orange, they sat spaced far apart as they waited for their cases to be called.

Behind a window in the courtroom gallery, three relatives watched from two long benches, separated by barely 6 feet.

Could this be the future for routine court proceedings?

“I think it’s going to be a long time before we see courtrooms looking like they did,” said Tampa attorney Scott Tozian. “In the courthouse, it’s people on top of people. We can’t do that. I don’t think you’re going to see that for quite some time.”

The first case in Nash’s courtroom Wednesday was one closely-watched. Cameron Herrin and John Barrineau are out of custody and not in court. They are accused of causing a crash on Bayshore Boulevard that killed a mother and her young daughter in 2018. Months ago, family members of the victims lamented how long the case was taking and implored the judge to set a trial date.

It was scheduled for June. But now, that appeared impossible.

Defense lawyers told the judge they had trouble scheduling final pretrial depositions of police and an expert witness because of the pandemic. A prosecutor agreed that June seemed too soon.

At least for now, June is when prospective jurors are set to begin filling the courthouse hallways again.

“I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” Nash said. “I think we’ll need a big jury pool. I don’t know how we’re going to handle jury selection.”

Amid these doubts, the trial was off.

In recent weeks, Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta asked both the state attorney and public defender to compile a list of the most pressing pending cases. The priority, Ficarrotta said, will be older cases in which defendants are waiting in jail.

The State Attorney’s Office provided a list of 45 homicide cases that were ready to go to trial in 2020.

They include the case of Steven Lorenzo, who was scheduled to face trial in April in the murders of two men in 2003. Lorenzo and co-defendant Scott Schweickert were accused of drugging and torturing and murdering gay men at Lorenzo’s Seminole Heights home.

Also on the list is the re-trial of Michael Keetley, the ice cream man who waited in jail for nearly 10 years before a jury in February was unable to decide if he was guilty of a 2010 Ruskin shooting rampage, resulting in a mistrial.

And so is Trevor Dooley, the former Valrico man who won a new trial, now set for July, after he was convicted of manslaughter in the 2010 shooting of a neighbor.

In Pasco County, there’s the case of Dale Massad, the former Port Richey mayor accused of shooting at sheriff’s deputies serving a search warrant at his home last year. Rescheduled multiple times, his trial is now set for June 22.

“He’s been desperately trying to get to trial,” said Massad’s attorney, Bjorn Brunvand. “Do I have concerns it may not happen? Absolutely.”

Witness Yilena Guerra, of Tampa, center, takes an oath for sworn testimony while appearing before Judge Nick Nazaretian of Florida's Thirteenth Circuit Court in a domestic violence case on Wednesday at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in downtown Tampa. Social distancing, at left, are witnesses Elias Rosario Sr., and Elias Rosario Jr., of Kissimmee. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In Tampa, jury selection may have to happen in the courthouse’s more spacious confines, like the jury auditorium or Courtroom 1, the cavernous ceremonial courtroom. There has also been talk of holding court in an auditorium at the State Attorney’s Office. Another possibility, Ficarrotta said, is to move some proceedings to the Tampa Convention Center.

But even if jurors come, there might not be a lot of them.

Chief judges in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties anticipate smaller jury pools, as some people may not show up or might be reluctant to serve. Some may be out of work or just getting back to work. Some may be sick or afraid of becoming sick if asked to venture into a courthouse to sit beside strangers, potentially for days.

“It’s going to be a hardship for a lot of people,” Ficarrotta said.

With criminal cases taking priority, many civil matters may be put on hold. Judges who normally preside over civil cases could be sent to the criminal side. Retired judges, known as senior judges, may be called into service more often.

Some are skeptical about how well the system can work with the coronavirus still prevalent. Jury trials, by their nature, require significant in-person contact.

“Social distancing between lawyer and client is something that hasn’t been addressed yet,” said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. “They just keep wanting to do everything by video. … I’m not going to do a trial or a probation violation hearing with the client not there.”

Counsel appear before Judge Christopher Nash of Florida's Thirteenth Circuit Court on Zoom video conferencing software, during a bond reduction hearing for Yuniel Hinojosa Gallardo in a racketeering case on Wednesday at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in downtown Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Dillinger, whose office represents defendants who can’t afford their own attorneys, said he has about 300 cases that are set for jury trials between now and the end of June.

“I think the biggest problem for all the attorneys I know is the unknown,” said Jay Hebert, a Clearwater defense lawyer. “We know the system will be forever changed. We just don’t know what that will look like.”

Some lawyers don’t see a return to full court operations for as long as 18 months, enough time for researchers to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

“Perhaps someone could tell us when that will be, but nobody seems to have a clear idea,” said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino. “The Supreme Court with the recommendations from their newly created work group may answer that for us.”

On April 20, Chief Justice Canady announced the creation of a 17-member work group of judges, attorneys and court personnel from throughout the state. Their task is to come up with a plan for an eventual return to full court operations.

“We have a huge responsibility to the cause of justice as well as the welfare of the people,” said Lisa Taylor Munyon, the Orange-Osceola Circuit judge who will lead the group. “It is essential we get this done as quickly and as safely as possible and serve the mission of the courts with integrity and ingenuity.”

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