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'We can't stop doing jury trials': Dane County's presiding judge reacts to Halderson case suspension

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Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn

Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn

COVID-Related Court Cancellations

MADISON (WKOW) - Dane County's presiding judge Wednesday said the suspension of the Chandler Halderson homicide trial on the heels of another trial's scuttling in connection with COVID-19 is concerning but not the norm, even with case counts climbing.

"Two cases are two cases, but we have been successfully having jury trials now since last June," Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn said. "We do have a backlog of criminal cases. We can't stop doing jury trials."

Earlier this week, the homicide trial of brothers Jeffrey and Javion Briggs ended in a mistrial when prosecutors said two important witnesses were unavailable after testing positive for COVID-19. Halderson's trial in the deaths of his parents was postponed for at least a week by judge John Hyland after Halderson tested positive. Hyland told jurors they would be notified Friday on the trial date resumption and when they needed to return to jury duty.

Bailey-Rihn said the Halderson trial was scheduled for four weeks and should finish within that time frame, even with a tentative week's delay. Bailey-Rihn says jurors should be able to build on what they've absorbed in slightly more than a week's worth of trial without difficulty.

"The slight pause is not going to delay the timeline," she said. "There have been cases all over the country where they're...furloughs for a month. I don't think a slight delay like this is going to hamper anyone's chance to present their evidence."

Nashville-based jury consultant Aref Jabbour with IMS Consulting & Expert Services has also seen this trend.

"There are certain courts...across the country that have taken breaks, hiatuses, two to three to four weeks to see what happens with this variant," Jabbour said.

A nationwide survey by IMS to gauge attitudes on jury service during the pandemic found more than eighty percent of respondents willing to carry out jury duty. But the survey found comfort levels with jury duty waned significantly over the prospect of being involved with trials of significant length.

Jabbour said research supports the likelihood of juries returning from a break in a trial without memory lapses of previous trial presentation and without accelerated concerns over COVID-19. But he says there are other risks to manage when a trial suspends.

"It's possible that some of the jurors might be, some might test positive," Jabbour said.

"You're going to have that risk," Bailey-Rihn said. "But with six alternates (in Halderson's trial)...we have enough alternates to continue."

To demonstrate the court system's resiliency, Bailey-Rihn cites one of her summer, civil trials in which a juror tested positive. Bailey-Rihn says a trial lunch break was used to administer rapid COVID-19 tests to other court participants. She says no one else tested positive and the trial continued.

Hyland Wednesday offered jurors rapid COVID-19 test kits as he dismissed them from duty for the time being.

"We take all the precautions we can for the jurors," Bailey-Rihn said. She said Halderson trial jurors were not close to Halderson and he was not a witness testifying unmasked to this point in his trial.

Jabbour says jurors have been part of the solution to resuming critical trial work in the face of the continuing pandemic.

"Things just need to keep moving," Jabbour said. "I'm sure the defendants, plaintiffs , across venues, across case types, are waiting for their day in court," he says.

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