Home Nonviolent defense Criminal court cases languish as pandemic backlog persists

Criminal court cases languish as pandemic backlog persists

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EVERETT — Charged with second-degree murder in September 2020, Diane Kay Thompson has been awaiting trial for about 18 months now.

After being charged with her husband’s murder, Thompson’s trial was set for late December 2020. It was too early for a homicide trial, so the date was pushed back to June 2021.

Then it was pushed back to September 2021. Then again to January of this year.

Such delays are common in Snohomish County Superior Court, where violent crime cases can take years to resolve, forcing some defendants to spend more time in jail and families of victims to wait for the much-needed closure.

Many factors contribute to the blockages, including police reforms and other changes in state law. But none surpass the interruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jury trials have been suspended twice in 2020, nearly stalling case resolutions. And even without formal breaks, trials are still struggling to get back on track.

“Granted, we’re in a different place with COVID now than we were a few years ago,” prosecutor Adam Cornell said. “But the impacts of the pandemic are still reverberating. The impacts of this slowdown have therefore persisted, that’s for sure.

There were 24 trials from January to April, according to state data. In the months leading up to the pandemic, Snohomish County Superior Court could complete as many trials in half the time. Last year there were 108, compared to 137 in 2020 and 248 in 2019.

Kathleen Kyle, executive director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, said lawsuits have seen a drop even in the past six weeks as lawyers and others have fallen ill in the latest wave of COVID.

“Luckily people are vaccinated… but they can’t come to work,” she said. “I worry about the pressure our system, myself included, is putting on our people to resolve these cases amidst this potpourri of variables we don’t control.”

‘Tsunami’

As of last week, there were more than 1,400 criminal cases pending in Snohomish County Superior Court, according to the prosecutor’s office. These are cases where an accused has been charged and is awaiting trial. They do not include those awaiting sentencing or post-conviction cases.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of other civil and national cases that also need to be dealt with, presiding judge George Appel told the Daily Herald.

Of more than 1,400 criminal cases, nearly 270 involve allegations of violent crimes; nearly 200 for sex offenses and alleged crimes against children; and 170 for domestic violence offences.

A different tally of court staff shows that the total number of pending cases has more than doubled since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, prosecutors filed more than 1,400 adult criminal cases in Snohomish County Superior Court, according to state data. That was down from nearly 1,900 the previous year. Yet in 2021, lawyers solved more cases than the previous year: around 2,100 compared to 1,500.

In 2019, the last year unaffected by the pandemic, local prosecutors filed more than 2,500 felony cases. Nearly 2,800 cases were processed.

This decline matches statewide trends in the early stages of the pandemic. In the first 10 months of the pandemic, case filings fell by nearly a quarter and decisions by a third, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

But as deposits have fallen over the past two years, the severity of cases may have increased. The percentage of homicide cases in Snohomish County has increased each year of the pandemic, state data shows.

“The cases didn’t stop, but the resolutions did,” Cornell said, likening the problem to a “tsunami.”

In the special assault unit that deals with sexual offenses and crimes against children, the cases filed now and before the pandemic are roughly the same, Cornell said. But guilty pleas have dropped by half, forcing more cases to go to trial. When people didn’t have to worry about being convicted at trial and weren’t in detention as prison populations plummeted, they had less incentive to solve their cases, he said.

And defendants in nonviolent cases opt for alternatives, like drug court or diversion programs, much less often, Cornell said. He attributed this to those charged with crimes spending significantly less time in court due to COVID-19 protocols.

“Instead, these cases just go on and on and on and on and on and on and on,” the prosecutor said. “And they just aren’t resolved.”

Kyle, the public defender, attributed this to a lack of resources for these alternatives.

“No one was happy”

While the district attorney’s office says it used money from the county budget to hire more prosecutors, the caseload remains high.

Local prosecutors dealing with non-violent charges, like property crimes, sometimes juggle between 90 and 100 cases at any given time, Chief Assistant District Attorney Matt Baldock said. For those pursuing violent cases, that number is lower. But in some cases, even those numbers soar into the 60s or 70s at a time. It’s too much, said Baldock.

Some public defenders have more than 80 open felony cases on their plates, Kyle noted.

“If you juggle 100 things, you hit those 100 cases fewer times than if you juggle 50 things,” she said.

Meanwhile, cases are becoming increasingly complex in the digital age, further clogging Snohomish County’s court system. For example, in 2017, Kyle’s office had seven terabytes of digital storage for surveillance footage, cellphone data, and other evidence. It was up to 31 terabytes last year.

The Superior Court should soon have more capacity to process cases. State lawmakers unanimously approved funding this year for two more Superior Court justices to help resolve pending cases. This will bring the county’s total to 17.

In Thompson’s case, she is not in custody awaiting trial, but the other defendants do not have the same luxury.

Alex Valdovinos, for example, has been held in Snohomish County Jail since March 2020 on $200,000 bond after prosecutors charged him with a shooting in Lynnwood that killed a 36-year-old man. His trial is scheduled for October, more than 30 months after his arrest.

Prosecutors fear that the longer the charges drag on, the weaker their case will be. Years after a crime, the memories of witnesses can flicker, for example.

“A criminal case is not like fine wine,” Cornell said. “It doesn’t get better with age.”

Meanwhile, Kyle argued that “the longer people are engaged in the system, the worse their outcomes are.”

At this point, Judge Appel thinks the local justice system can make progress.

Since February, 520 cases have been filed in Superior Court, Deputy Court Administrator Brittany Romero said in an email. Nearly 600 have been resolved, slightly exceeding the repositories.

“So that’s good,” Appel said.

Now Thompson, 65, is due to stand trial in December, more than two years after charges were brought against her. Baldock typically tells victims’ families that violent cases should take about a year to complete.

Defense attorney Caroline Mann said the delays were frustrating for everyone.

“No one was happy”

Rue Jake Goldstein: 425 339-3439; [email protected]; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.