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Connecticut court administrator mulling post-COVID judicial operations

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Sergio Correa wants his murder trial, but it's been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 28-year-old was scheduled to go on trial this spring in New London Superior Court for the murders of Janet, Kenneth and Matthew Lindquist of Griswold. This past week, attorney Joseph Lopez filed a motion for speedy trial and said in a phone interview that Correa wants his day in court. Lopez followed up with a motion to reduce Correa's $3.5 million bond so that he could be free while awaiting trial.

The bond motion is a long-shot, given the serious nature of the crimes, allegedly carried out with his adopted sister Ruth Correa, who has agreed to testify for the state in  exchange for a 40-year sentence.

During normal times, trial Judge Arthur C. Hadden would likely grant the motion for a speedy trial that is scheduled to be heard on June 3 and schedule jury selection to begin within the required days. Correa has been incarcerated since February 2018, far longer than the eight months required for a speedy trial motion, and has said during several court appearances prior to the pandemic that he wants his trial.

But these aren't normal times. On March 19, Gov. Ned Lamont, working with the Judicial Branch, issued an executive order suspending the time requirements for speedy trials. Federal court trials also are on hold, at least through September.

Connecticut's Chief Court Administrator, Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, said in a phone interview Wednesday that he has been envisioning daily what jury trials, the foundation of the legal system, might look like with social distancing measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He said he's been speaking with the state's top prosecutor and public defender, following reports of the virus and consulting with other court administrators throughout the country.

"When the crisis broke, our goal was to put a massive pause on any side of the courts, to make sure nobody on either side was prejudiced in any way," Carroll said.

Now the goal is to resume business while keeping staff, courts and members of the public safe. Carroll is considering reopening at least one more courthouse in each district — business is now consolidated into six courts and conducted during half day sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — and said the challenges of conducting a jury trial are massive, but perhaps not unsurmountable.

"Think about the challenges," Carroll said. "We have to summon hundreds of jurors into our courts each day, screen them through our metal detectors each day, and most of the jury assembly rooms are on the top floor. They have to get into an elevator. How many people are we going to put in an elevator?"

Jurors typically sit closely together in courtroom jury boxes and wait in small rooms together while individual questioning is conducted. Deliberation rooms are tight. Once the trial is under way, evidence and documents are often passed around, and it might be a challenge to assess the credibility of a witness who is speaking through a mask. People over 65 are considered at higher risk and are advised to stay home.

"Does that mean you're never going to have an elderly person serving on a jury again?" Carroll said. "That would be devastating. And if you go virtual, you have to worry about the quality of the evidence, and some people can't afford internet access."

For now, the Judicial Branch is surveying all the courts in order to implement safety measures and conducting more business remotely. Even when court is in session for arraignments and other priority matters, judges, prosecutors and attorneys and staff are positioned separately throughout the  courthouse, with virtual connections to defendants in the courthouse lockup or lobby.

Victims and family members also want their day in court, but they too will have to wait.

Eric Lindquist, whose brother and parents were killed in the Dec. 20, 2017, home invasion/murders, issued a statement Friday that he said was on behalf of the Lindquists' friends and family.

"We were disappointed with the delay at first, but are pleased to see Correa's frustration grow as he is stripped of his right to a speedy trial. Anything that makes him unhappy is a small victory in the fight for justice. We hope that the state's attorneys use this opportunity to tie up any loose ends and further solidify their case."

Chief State's Attorney Richard J. Colangelo Jr. said by phone this week that at some point the courts will get back to "a new normal," perhaps with fits and starts along the way. Meanwhile, the necessity of continuing to operate from a distance may be what finally results in updating what Colango referred to as archaic 1970s computer systems.

Prosecutors are still working with paper files, but Colangelo said the long-awaited Criminal Information Sharing System could be running by the end of the year, and that the Division of Criminal Justice is working to get prosecutors and staff the ability to access files remotely from state-issued devices.

Colangelo conceded it would be difficult to conduct a criminal trial right now with physical distancing in place and the need to assure jurors of their safety.

The Judicial Branch started conducting pretrial discussions of civil cases remotely this past week under the direction of Judge James W. Abrams, chief administrative judge for civil matters, who said the lawyers involved were pleased, according to Carroll.

Judge Elizabeth A. Bozzuto, deputy chief court administrator, said that just in the past week, 86 pretrial discussions of family cases were conducted remotely and Family Relations staff had 150 status conferences. Some 560 civil proceedings were scheduled to take place, all of them without judges having to bring people into court.

The pandemic has presented opportunities along with challenges, Carroll said, and the post-COVID Judicial Branch will have to be more responsive and nimble.

Gary Roberge, executive director of the Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division, said bail commissioners are supervising 2,754 people who are free in the community while awaiting trial and that staff continue to go to police departments daily to interview and release newly arrested defendants.

Even prior to the pandemic, the state had been releasing low-level offenders awaiting trial who were not considered a risk to public safety, and once the crisis began, judges, prosecuors and defense attorneys reviewed cases to determine whether others could be released.

"When this started, we took a look at people held on between $500 to $11,000 bond," Roberge said. Eventually they looked at people whose bonds were between $12,000 and $25,000, then went on to review the files of people held on bonds up to $35,000, releasing approximately 500 people on home arrest or with other conditions.

Roberge said he doesn't think the releases have led to a big increase in court business.

"Judge Carroll was clear from the start that we were going to do these initiatives, but we had to do it with public safety in mind," Roberge said.

Christine Rapillo, chief public defender for the state, said she doesn't think everybody who could be out has been released. When the pandemic is over, she is hoping to analyze how well people did who were released.

"If they came back to court and we restarted their cases and everything was fine, maybe that's a sign that she should have been out," she said.

Those who are in prison awaiting trial on more serious charges have been calling to find out the status of their cases, which have been continued several times due to the reduction in court business. Her office is contacting every client with an update, Rapillo said, and when the courts resume operations, a number of cases will be ready to resolve.

"We're going to have to figure out the video conferencing, because we don't think they (Judicial) will be bringing in anybody (to court)," Rapillo said.

Conducting business remotely is not ideal in criminal cases, where lawyers like to sit next to their clients and speak confidentially with them, but Rapillo said judges have been good about letting the attorneys conference privately with clients.

As for the big cases, such as Correa's, "a videoconferenced jury trial doesn't seem like good justice to me," Rapillo said. "A jury trial is about somebody being able to observe a witness and make good judgments. People don't come across the same way on a screen as they do in person."

At this time, though, "I don't know how you keep jurors comfortable enough that they are going to pay attention," she said.

k.florin@theday.com

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