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Growing backlog of court cases could logjam Florida court when jury trials resume

More than 1,100 jury trials in Florida delayed since March
Palm Beach County courthouse hasn't hosted any murder trials since March 2020
Posted at 6:17 AM, Sep 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-01 18:46:03-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A growing backlog of pending cases in Florida's judicial system could logjam the courts when normal operations resume.

In March, the spread of COVID-19 severely restricted court operations, including a state Supreme Court order that halted all jury trials until further notice.

A recent report from the Trial Court Budget Commission paints a dire picture of a strained court system statewide.

According to the report, the total number of "normal" pending cases statewide, as of June 30, 2019, was 1,471,373. The report estimates an additional 992,074 pending cases on top of that, or a 67% increase, through June 2021.

"Despite the efforts to keep the work of the court system moving, including through extensive use of technology to conduct proceedings remotely, the trial courts anticipate a significant backlog as they return to full operations," the report said.

'Statewide Criminal Case Backlog' graphic

The report estimates 185,000 cases have not been filed between March and June because of COVID-19, but it will likely be filed when normal court operations resume.

The report also notes "approximately 1,180 criminal and civil jury trials have been delayed statewide since March."

The trial of accused Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz is among the delays.

Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer delayed the trial indefinitely during a virtual hearing June 22, saying it wasn't clear when the courts would resume normal operations.

"That was difficult, especially for my family and the other 16 [families] (who) lost somebody," Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was one of the seventeen victims gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, told Contact 5. "We understand where we are in the process, which is unfortunately still stalled."

Gina Montalto, victim of Parkland school shooting
Gina Montalto was one of 17 people killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February 2018.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg said his office is hamstrung in some murder cases because state law requires a grand jury indictment to seek the death penalty.

"We're still preparing for the grand jury and for trials," Aronberg told Contact 5. "But the actual trial, the actual grand jury, can't happen until the Florida Supreme Court says it can happen."

Greg Morse, a South Florida defense attorney, believes the lack of jury trials could create potential constitutional violations for accused criminal defendants.

"Speedy trials for defendants normally does not become an issue," Morse said in an interview. "But this is going to literally backlog every single case."

Palm Beach County Chief Judge Krista Marx agreed.

Palm Beach County Chief Judge Krista Marx
Krista Marx serves as the chief judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit of Florida, which comprises all of Palm Beach County.

"For the first time since the inception of the jury system in the United States of America, there was not a single jury trial being conducted in the United States anywhere," Marx told Contact 5.

Marx said that the court is considering the rights of the victims and defendants because of the backlog.

Chief Judge Krista Marx discusses backlog in Palm Beach County courts

"There's never been a more drastic change in the court system than this pandemic," Marx told Contact 5 in an exclusive interview.

To slow a growing backlog, some criminal courts are considering adapting courtrooms so jury trials can resume.

Dave Bohman demonstrates how Martin County could resume jury trials during coronavirus
Contact 5 investigator Dave Bohman demonstrates how Martin County could resume jury trials at a social distance.

Some counties, including Martin, are exploring plans where some jurors sit in the jury box at a social distance, while other jurors sit in the spectator section. The spectator section of the courtroom would then likely be closed off to the public.

In the murder trial of the accused Parkland shooter, Montalto expects a traditional trial.

Tony Montalto says justice can wait for Parkland school shooter
Tony Montalto, the father of Gina Montalto, says justice can wait so that the accused Parkland school shooter can have a traditional trial. "He attacked a school, one of the bedrocks of our community, where our children and our teachers are vulnerable, and he deserves to face the full measure of the law for that action," Montalto says.

"He attacked a school, one of the bedrocks of our community, where our children and our teachers are vulnerable, and he deserves to face the full measure of the law for that action," Montalto said.

However, Montalto believes that justice can wait for Gina and the 16 other Parkland victims until the courts can operate safely from the coronavirus pandemic.

"We know the pain of loss," Montalto said.

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